Thursday, 23 December 2010


21/12/10, Theatre Upstairs (Royal Court)

1 hr 15 mins straight through. A bit of a dud, unfortunately, because it was a nice idea. Ten-year old girls at boarding school, swearing themselves blue in the face, emotionally needy, being beastly to each other one moment and clinging the next, discussing "annie" (anorexia), crushes and the like in brittle, staccato dialogue... and played by ten-year old girls. Unfortunately while one of the two main characters spoke well and convincingly and you could hear every word she said, the other was hard to decipher, having that high, apparently clear but actually rather muffled voice that many children have, and much of her dialogue got lost.

There were three girls and three adult actors -- a female teacher, a male governor ("Are you a paedophile?" one girl asked him brightly) and an older brother. The girls' dialogue and their deep-seated unhappiness, which breaks out in pashes and rivalries and jealousies and conspiracies and petty blackmail, was caught accurately. Part of the "plot" revolves around who's playing who in the school production of The Crucible, which of course the girls don't understand. The adults were much less convincing, especially the teacher. Perhaps we were supposed to see them as the girls saw them, but if that were the case the scenes with the teacher alone on the phone to the headmistress simply didn't work.

The set a pair of bunk beds and not much else. Tuck boxes and trunks (one of which is dropped out of a window). Grey school uniforms. Constant noises off: shouts, gossip, laughter, running, the whole place never quiet (and after dark the waving of torches in the corridors).

I'd say the author (E V Crowe) is one to watch.

Afterwards S said her boarding school was never like that and I was inclined to agree: neither was mine. A, being American, said she thought boarding schools barbaric. S and I defended them, saying we'd been happy at ours and well-educated. But afterwards I thought that what sticks in my mind is secondary school: prep school was a different matter and I remember ten year old boys being almost as beastly to some people (including me) as those ten year old girls.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


14/12/10, RSC (Roundhouse)

Missed it: had to work.

But I'm reliably informed it contained an episode of Superfluous Smoking.


8/12/10, National (Olivier)

3 hrs 30 mins. Superfluous smoking alert.

Time Out's Caroline McGinn reckons Rory Kinnear's Hamlet was the best she's seen. Personally I'd rather be guided by the audience reaction: silence during some of the set-pieces (like the play) but a cannonade of coughing during the soliloquies. That to me suggests a decent production but a leading actor who, while perfectly intelligent and speaking the words in a way that enables one to follow his train of thought with beautiful clarity, lacks the necessary charisma.

A decent production (by Nick Hytner) but derivative: reminded me an awful lot of Greg Doran's similar modern dress production with David Tennant for the RSC last Christmas, especially the idea of surveillance (CCTV cameras in Doran's version, secret service operatives with earpieces in this).

David Calder strong as Polonius and the gravedigger. Ruth Negga the most convincing Ophelia I've ever seen -- I thought she was a genuine teenager but it turns out she's 30 or thereabouts and highly experienced. (She's also half-Irish, half-Ethiopian; Alex Lanipekun who plays Laertes is also mixed race' so presuambly this wasn't colour-blind casting but a suggestion that Polonius's late wife was black.) James Laurenson interesting but underpowered as the Ghost and the Player. Patrick Malahide definitely underpowered as a Machiavellian Claudius: a piece of very effective screen acting totally lost in the Olivier's vast spaces. Clare Higgins tottering about on a pair of very high heels playing Gertrude as a hard-bitten old party who's seen it all. (She was also very clearly miked, which in this theatre is a bonus, though I couldn't spot anyone else who was.)

The smoking? Hamlet lights up twice, the first time on his student-style mattress in a room full of piled up books... and takes no further puffs.


2/12/10, The Hospital, Covent Garden

2 hrs. Preview of the new film about George VI and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue: a fine piece of British heritage film-making and a hot tip for the Oscars. I'd just read the book by Logue's grandson Mark and the Sunday Times journalist Peter Conradi and (perhaps as a result) was slightly disappointed by the movie, despite the great praise it garnered at the London Film Festival.

The central performances (Colin Firth as the Duke of York/King, Geoffrey Rush as Logue) were strong. So too were Helena Bonham-Carter as the Duchess/Queen/Queen Mum and (perhaps surprising this) Guy Pearce as Edward VIII (even though the supposed older brother was played by the younger actor). But I didn't care for Michael Gambon's George V: the bullying was historically apt but he seemed to lack aristocratic polish. Claire Bloom was unrecognisable as Queen Mary. Anthony Andrews looked and moved like a waxwork as Baldwin. Derek Jacobi was implausibly reptilian as the Archbishop. Timothy Spall was frankly embarrassing as Churchill.

At times I drifted and played spot the location. The old Naval College at Greenwich stood in for wartime Whitehall, I think. I'm told Logue's distressed basement consulting room was in a house in Portland Place rented out for events and locations. The Duke's home at 145 Piccadilly was also a house in Portland Place. The Logue family home was in that tenement block behind Kings Cross which is often used for filming... and looked a very far cry from The Boltons where they actually lived in middle class comfort before moving to a rather grand villa in Sydenham.

And some of the compromises with historical truth needed to make a decent film irked me. The timescale is compressed, which is fair enough: everything happens between 1934 and 1939 in the film, whereas in fact Logue first treated the Duke in 1925 or 6. There's a nice scene in Westminster Abbey before the Coronation in which the king (who's been listening to the Archbishop and his scheming Establishment cronies) confronts Logue with his lack of qualifications, which allows Logue to respond with a bit of handy backstory about treating sufferers from World War One shellshock and never claiming to have qualifications because there weren't any for a new discipline he was helping to pioneer. There's another scene in which Logue starts asking the Duke about his childhood -- a primitive type of psychoanalysis, perhaps -- and meets resistance from the Duke which probably reflects reality. And the significance of the Duke's problems is emphasised by supposing that many more of his speeches were broadcast than was really the case and conjuring up a wonderful BBC control room with equipment cabinets carrying brass plates with the names of the countries of the empire to which they transmitted which had a certain bravura splendour.

But Logue is made out to be a failed actor. He calls the Duke "Bertie" whereas in reality he was always "Sir". And the Logues are shown as a good deal poorer than they were in reality. No doubt the aim is to emphasise the contrast between the privileged royals and the "common colonial" Logue, but the changes rather diminish Lionel as an historical figure.

What's more, to make sense of the Abdication crisis Edward VIII's supposed Fascist leanings are frequently referred to (I suspect no-one knew about them at the time and, if they did, those in the know were a good deal more perturbed by the religious question), and at one point a radio in the background carries what sounds like Abdication news when in reality it was all a terrible secret until the deed was agreed.

But looking back at that list I see there are many more positives than negatives (and I could have named several other positives) so no doubt I'm just being picky.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


27/11/10, BFI Southbank (NFT as was)

2 hrs 25 mins. Newly-restored and extended print of Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece, thanks to the discovery of an exceedingly grainy 16mm print in Buenos Aires containing large amounts of material cut from the original, ranging from the odd cut-away shot to entire scenes. Will and I saw it in the BFI Southbank studio, which is a very small box-like cinema with an enormous screen: almost too big, from where I was sitting in the second row.

I've never seen it, though one has of course seen a good many stills and the odd clip: the robot, the "Frankenstein's monster" scene in which Maria is strapped naked into some sort of transparent box for the transfer of her mind to the robot's, the top shots of the huge city with its trains and cars and biplanes flying between the buildings, the opening sequence of the ranks of identically-clad workers trudging wearily in step to and from their shifts and the nightmare machine halls where they work until they drop.

Visually it's staggering. All subsequent makers of science fiction movies and cinematic dystopias are in Lang's debt, as are the Frankenstein films. The visual effects are remarkable and I'm not clear how he achieved them: the tiny figures running around in the vast city (the city clearly a model, the people apparently real), the lightning bolts and circular rings of energy which pulsate around the model and Maria in the transfer scene.

Plot-wise it's deeply implausible though, even with some of the missing scenes put back in. For instance the motivation of Rotwang, the mad inventor, is never entirely clear. This may be a lack of inter-titles; it may be that Lang was less interested in constructing a plot without holes than simply in getting from one set-piece to another.

Politically it's a curious mish-mash as well. The scenes of the workers' suffering and dehumanisation seem to come straight out of Marx (this was made, of course, just ten years after the October revolution in Russia) and the villain in the first part of the film is the heartless capitalist Joh Fredersen. In their images of hundreds of uniformed figures all marching to the same beat those early scenes also hark forward to the iconography of the Nazis. On the other hand, violent revolution is deprecated, and appears to be deliberately engineered by the villain of the second part of the film, the Jewish Rotwang (we know he's Jewish because his house is liberally decorated with Stars of David), a combination of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism with which Hitler would presumably have agreed.

Some of the bits one hadn't seen were striking too. Early on there's a scene of scantily-clad lovelies in the Garden of Pleasure one of whom is all but topless, a fact we are invited to linger on as she twirls slowly and seductively around for us: pretty daring for 1927. And then there's the orgiastic dance performed by the false Maria, who is topless, except for elaborate pasties. Towards the end there's a scene in which the underground workers' city is flooded and the children (the only ones left after the parents have all gone up to wreck the machines) wade through the rising waters towards their saviour, the (real) Maria: lots of top shots of the crowd converging on her as she wrestles with some kind of alarm bell, intercut with lots of low-level shots of her silhouetted. And then there's a "lost" sequence among the Buenos Aires material of the children trying to escape up a ventilation shaft and finding their way blocked by a grille at the top, with the staircase behind them filling up with panicking kids, which is probably the most genuinely gripping in the film.

Reservations. The plot and the anti-Semitism I've mentioned. Also film-makers were still developing the grammar of the medium, so there are one or two moments that jar, in particular some occasions when the camera crosses the line. The acting is standard-issue silent movie, every emotion telegraphed endlessly in the mime artist's equivalent of CAPITAL LETTERS. And I'm not sure about the music, credited to Gottfried Huppertz, and by the sound if it re-recorded for this reconstruction: what would the film be like without it?

The Wikipedia article here as some interesting material on the special effects, the pioneering architectural styles, Fritz Lang's dislike of the film and the fact that his wife, who co-wrote it, went on to become a fervent Nazi!


8/11/10, Bush

Anything but romantic, as it turns out. A one-night stand/office romance thing turns into a dysfunctional relationship that then becomes something more permanent when she falls pregnant.

A transfer from the Traverse where it was a fringe hit. of a play by DC Jackson.

A three-hander in which the cast play all the parts, with clever use of filing cabinets, desks, document boxes and the like as props (or hiding places for props) and equally clever use of the device of actors addressing the audience in one voice while addressing each other in another. That led to lots of funny jokes about how what we say in a relationship differs, sometimes radically, from what we actually mean. None of it especially original, but wittily written and wittily performed by Iain Robertson, Alison O'Donnell and Rosalind Sydney.

Robertson was sweating copiously. It's a small theatre, granted, and he was working hard but it seemed excessive. They say it's a sign of stage fright but he seemed to be doing ace to me, so can he really have been nervous?

Here's a review:

Thursday, 25 November 2010


24/11/10, ENO

2 hrs 20 mins. Superfluous Smoking alert.

A real cracker, not so much for the music as for Simon McBurney's staggering direction. Never less than enthralling it was theatre with music rather than opera.
A dying dog (a puppet with two voices... a counter-tenor and a raucous contralto belting out animal noises through a megaphone) is rescued by a professor who takes it home, feeds it up, then subjects it to an experiment in which its testicles and heart are replaced with those of a human being. It duly turns into a man, feral and dog-like in his primitive emotions but terrifyingly adept at manipulating the petty politics of Stalinist Moscow, who has to be (bloodily) turned back into an animal.
It's a political satire which might have had few legs were it not for McBurney's numerous interventions. Other theatre directors we've recently seen making their debut at this address failed because they clearly didn't trust the music to do much of the work for them and undermined it or added unnecessary business. Superficially you could level the same charge at McBurney except that everything he does helps rather than hinders the music, and it's all so cleverly and wittily done.
The operations take place in shadow form behind a screen. There are video projections, a square playing area bare to the wings, processions of patients, tenants, political activists and the like. A constant delight. This is written up a couple of weeks after the event, so here are some reviews:

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


17/11/10, ENO

3 hrs 10 mins. Superfluous Smoking alert.

This is the third Don Giovanni we've seen (after Don John at BAC and Glyndebourne in the summer) to make Leporello (Brindley Sherratt) a sleazy character with a camera and his list aria into a slide show of Don Giovanni's conquests. Though this version, in Jeremy Sams' exceedingly witty translation, turned the list not into a collection of countries but into a kind of month-by-month sales report ("March to April, 102") complete with bar charts and a gag about a "spreadsheet".

And it's the second (after Glyndebourne) to turn the Commendatore into a zombie emerging from the grave (though ENO's Commendatore was neither as frightening nor as well acted and sung as Glyndebourne's).

But some things about this production were different. I think the order of the numbers in Act 2 was changed so that Don Giovanni's little mandolin aria was no longer sung looking up at Donna Elvira's window but instead became a soliloquy, a reflection on some kind of ideal woman for whom the Don has been searching all his life, a video of her eyes projected onto the set as he sang... which helped provide him with a motive.

Indeed one of the strengths of this production (by Rufus Norris) was the care given to supplying motivation for the characters and the psychological truth of much of the action. At Glyndebourne Zerlina's switch from flirtation to crying rape seemed arbitrary; here it made sense (she was flattered by the Don's interest, then he got her drunk, then she realised what was happening). And her teasing aria to the injured Mazeppo (all about dealing with his "swellings") was again wittily done and beautifully delivered by Sarah Tynan (we've seen her at this address in The Elixir of Love and Jephtha).

But the strengths were undermined by some curious directorial decisions of which the first was the set, a constantly moving set of angular walls and windows and staircases round, through and over which the principals scrambled while they (the walls etc) were wheeled around the stage by stagehands dressed in red and yellow Hallowe'en masks and sweatshirts. Cleverly choreographed, but really annoying and not always helpful.

And there was a very odd St Vitus dance during the second act sextet when they all realise Leporello has duped them: Donna Anna (Katherine Broderick, once a diminutive ENO Brunnhilde, though she's filled out hugely since, alas) did an Irish dance; Don Ottavio (Robert Murray, rather good) took his clothes off to his underwear; Zerlina twisted herself into agonised attitudes. What was all that about? None of us knew.

Don Ottavio had a first act aria I don't recall from the Glyndebourne production, which made him rather less of a cypher and rather more of a proper character. And Mazeppo too (John Molloy) seemed in this production to be taken rather more seriously.

Iain Patterson commanding as the Don; Rebecca Stevens ill and substituted by Sarah Someone who did well. But we had a feeling that, like Rupert Goold the other day with Turandot, this was a case of a tyro opera director who didn't trust the material sufficiently and packed the production with unnecessary business.

The costumes suggested some time in the 1960s. Mazeppo wore a shiny suit and a teddy boy's quiff, Zerlina a white dress with exaggerated pencil skirt and blue polka dots, Leporello a tie and dirty raincoat, Donna Elvira a black dress and Donna Anna a red two piece suit.

The Superfluous Smoking came during the overture when the Don appeared in dumbshow, handed his cigarette to Leporello and then raped a woman his Hallowe'en costume-clad henchmen had caught, before nicking her bright green coat and a wig and putting them on, making him look (briefly) like an 18th century aristo.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


15/11/10, Hampstead

1 hr 20 mins, no interval. Athol Fugard's latest (and directed by him as well), a two-hander set in a graveyard for "the nameless ones", tended by an old man with a spade, Simon, to which comes a white train driver looking for the grave of the young woman with a baby who stepped out in front of his train and killed herself, locking eyes with him briefly as she did so He has been traumatised by the incident.

Inspired by a newspaper cutting Fugard found in 2000, which the train driver carries with him and reads out at one point. Presumably it's the real cutting, though if it is the journalist who wrote it needs to go a few rounds with someone like Harry Evans. (Question: Does it make a difference that the play is set in South Africa ten years ago? Have things got better or worse since?)

It's a bleak fable in which the driver, driven almost mad by PTSD, nightmares and hallucinations, eventually concludes that the young woman killed herself in the absence of hope. In the process he finds a hint of peace but is killed by gangsters in the night while digging a grave with Simon's spade. In an equally bleak Coda Simon tells us that he lost his job as a result... and his spade.

Bleak, but "beautifuly acted" seemed to be consensus. Owen Sejake was Simon, a big slow-moving, taciturn bear of man with some lovely lyrical passages in which he remembered his childhood, though most of the time he just sat and listened. Sean Taylor was the train driver, nervy, voluble, though we thought his accent slipped now and then: he is South African, though now married to an Australian where he spends a lot of time, but perhaps he was brought up as the kind of posh white South African who speaks English RP.

It's mostly in English but with short passages in Afrikaans and occasional snatches of Xhosa.

Good set by Saul Radomsky: a rubbish-strewn sandy waste with humps for the graves and a hole where one is being dug. A primitive wire fence around the back. In one corner a cutaway of the interior of Simon's shack ("boondock"?) where he lives at a level barely above subsistence and where the train driver stays with him. The rubbish -- car hubs, old lamps nameless bits of rusting machinery -- turns out to have a purpose, marking the graves. The driver is shocked by what he sees as a lack of respect for the dead and tried to replace the junk with crosses made from stones and pebbles. Simon tells him the junk is there to make sure he doesn't dig in the same place twice.

What does it say about South Africa? That it is (or was in 2000) still a profoundly unequal, violent and poverty-stricken place where many have no hope. That it is possible for blacks and whites to bond across the divide. But that just when you think you're getting somewhere the violence erupts and it all comes crashing down.

There are shades of Beckett, but like Beckett it's all frustratingly inconclusive and allusive. But my understanding was enriched.

Here's some reviews:

Monday, 15 November 2010


When did it become obligatory for stage presentations to include characters smoking? Perhaps when it became illegal to smoke in the workplace, with the stage the only exception, and directors couldn't resist the urge to exploit their freedom. Or perhaps it's just that the childish show-off which lurks inside most performers, taking delight in contrarian gestures and shocking the grown-ups, is moved to try anything which is so widely condemned.

Either way, we've noticed over the last couple of years a remarkable epidemic of gratuitous smoking sweeping across the London (and Edinburgh and no doubt every other) stage. Sometimes it's justified because it's in the script. In Blasted, which was written in 1995, long before the smoking ban, the journalist smokes (and coughs and has apparently had a lung removed) and the girl keeps telling him to stop because it's bad for him; it is I suppose plausible that a journalist of his age and vintage would smoke, though it doesn't make the character any more believable.

Sometimes it's justified in helping to establish time and place. Serenading Louie at the Donmar was set in suburban Chicago c 1970 and they all smoked furiously; but then in 1970 Chicago they would have done. (At one point a character in need of comfort and contemplation takes a pipe out of a drawer and sucks on it meditatively.)

But what was the plump soprano singing Tiridate in Radamisto doing lighting up (and was the character really using a cigarette-holder)?

Did it add much to Tribes that the son was a smoker? OK, it was authentic, and we were told he used the greenhouse as a smoking room. But did we need to see him and his brother's girlfriend sharing a sneaky fag on stage when the grown-ups were out, then desperately trying to wave the smoke away when they returned?

The actors rarely look comfortable smoking, since few must do it in real life. The cigarettes always seem to burn out in no time (do they have special theatrical cigarettes that light up and then go out instantly, to minimise the risk of fire on stage?). It's become a standing joke.

Henceforth these reviews will note instances of unjustified Token Smoking and make a tally at the year end.


11/11/10, Lyric Hammersmith

1 hr 45 mins. No interval (there was one in the original production at the Royal Court in 1995, someone said, but the audience walked out in droves; this way they lock you in for the duration).

The notorious Sarah Kane shocker, and we've seen it at last. And frankly, none of us much enjoyed it. It owes a big debt to King Lear, to Beckett, to schlock-horror splatter movies and to reports of the war in Bosnia, but lacks the profundity and universal resonance of the first two, or the visceral impact of the third, and imports the fourth unconvincingly to Leeds.

The chief difficulty is that it's impossible to empathise with the characters, who seem drawn from stock and equipped with a repertoire of tics and verbal routines that don't quite add up. Beckettian bafflement and boredom was the result.

Some of the shock moments were pretty shocking. A soldier eats the eyes of a man he's just raped. A dead baby is eaten (truly revolting, that). But we wanted it to end not so much because it was shocking but because the violence made us uncomfortable without justification. And perhaps it's a reminder that the most powerful things are sometimes left unspoken or merely hinted at.

The scene is a hotel room. There are the sounds of civil unrest outside but the hotel seems to function normally, with room service and hot and cold running water. It's quite plush, though one of the first lines is "I've shat in better places than this".

There are just three characters. A middle-aged, alcoholic journalist (Danny Webb) apparently dying of lung cancer, a noisy boor who wears a gun in a shoulder hoslter. A girl (Lydia Wilson, whom we saw in Pains of Youth) of indeterminate age (16? 18? 21?) with whom he seems to have had a (presumably underage) sexual relationship at some point in the past. And a soldier (Aidan Kelly), who bursts in half-way through with a gun, abuses, rapes and mutilates the journalist (the girl having escaped through the bathroom window, apparently) and then lies dead during the last few scenes, though how he died we're not told and we don't see.

The characters have rudimentary backstories. The journalist has a wife and child. The girl has a mother and a younger brother with learning difficulties and, implausibly given the civil war outside and her apparent lack of education, she is hoping to get a job as PA in an advertising agency. The journalist scoffs at this, brtually, as he does virtually everything. We know he's a journaslist because at one point he phones through his story to a copytaker. It's about some tragic death abroad and he has presumably been to see the family, but the story he phones over is the kind of finished piece, including quotes from a Foreign office spokesman, that only a sub in the newsroom would produce, not a reporter on the road. The soldier too has a backstory: a girlfriend or wife who was brutally assaulted and killed. We are given the details though curiously I have forgotten them.

The dialogue, which is interspersed with long periods of silent action, is brutal, allusive and sometimes repetitive. The girls says she loves the journalist though what she means by that, and what we're meant to believe she means, is unclear. At the start he takes all his clothes off, grabs his willy and sasys "Suck on this". She refuses (too disgusted?) though later she does give him a blow-job. In bed overnight it seems he rapes her because she complains next morning of pain, struggles to get dressed and says she can't piss or shit; on the other hand, when they woke uop she was still wearing her bra and knickers. Was the assault imagined? Or does the actress not do nudity?

Halfway through there isd a massive explosion which destroys the hotel room leaving only a dark landscape of beams and struts, and the hotel bed. (Maybe it's this that kills the soldier??).

Towards the end the journalist, blinded, helpless and starving, is visited by the girl (why?) carrying a crying baby she's found. The baby dies and she buries it under the floorboards. At the end he digs the corpse up and starts to eat it, then climbs into the hole so that all that we can see of him is his head. It's immediately beneath a hole in the roof through which rain comes down to soak him. The girl returns (why had she gone? why does she come back?) and sharesd a morsel of food with him. By this stage the lights have gone down, leaving only a spotlight on the journalist's head. He says "Thank you". Blackout.

Redemption of sorts, I suppose, in an otherwise profoundly nihilistic play, though one that nags away at you demanding explanation and elucidation, which may be the mark of an effective piece of theatre.

Friday, 5 November 2010


3/11/10, Royal Court

A play by Nina Raine about deafness, about belonging (to a family, the deaf community or some other "tribe"), about communication and language. Featuring a deaf actor, Jacob Casselden, as the third child in an otherwise noisy, opinionated, argumentative and not wholly-functional hearing family of academics, would-be academics and musicians. It's a measure of her skill that I thought his girlfriend, the hearing child of a deaf family who is herself going deaf, was also played by a deaf actress, Michelle Terry; except that Terry (we saw her in England People Very Nice and London Assurance at the National) isn't deaf, she just gets the slightly false emphases, the dodgy timing of the deaf and hard of hearing bang on.

The early part of the play neatly established the family milieu. Especially the problems of adult children returning home (the rows about nicked socks and smoking in the greenhouse). The characters were neatly sketched in: dominating Dad (Stanley Townsend), full of information and himself, joking, bullying, relishing his reputation for blunt speaking; peace-making Mum (Kika Markham), for ever interceding and mediating. We see them first at table, noisily (that word again) arguing, with the deaf child the oddly silent one.

His sense of exclusion from his talkative family fuels his enthusiasm for belonging to another tribe, that of the deaf. Ironically his girlfriend, as the play progresses, rebels against her position as a member of another (small) tribe, that of the deaf activist.

There is (from memory, three weeks later) more cleverly-written dialogue about tribes and their membership, but I've forgotten it.

There were some good things in this, but it was spoilt by being overly schematic and melodramatised. The son home from university and nominally working on a masters was convincing until he turned out to be a drug addict and reformed stutterer and no longer plausible. The sister (a tyro opera-singer played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who we saw at the Soho in Roaring Trade) was underwritten.

Here are some reviews:


22/10/10, Duchess

Written by Penelope

We all look back. We all look forward. But how much time do we spend in the present? And do we enjoy looking back? That, partly, is what Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape, is about. But the Beckett afficionado who accompanied me laughed when I asked, just as the curtain went down, “So, what’s this about then?”. His answer was “Life”.

Michael Gambon plays Krapp – a curmudgeonly fellow, in a scruffy grey suit, with dirty white shoes, and a shirt tail, untucked, with a huge hole in the back. There is a desk on stage, a chair, and biscuit tins with tapes in them. Not much else. Gambon doesn’t speak for about the first 20 minutes but it’s a measure of his acting abilities that you’re not bored. You watch as he rolls his seat on wheels back and forth, opens and closes drawers, eats a banana and looks through tins of tapes. Gambon has enormous, pale hands, which seem to hang in a hopeless, almost useless way at times. He uses his large ungainly frame well.

Box 3, Spool 5. That seems to be the most important tape. He fast forwards the tape and reaches a section that he plays over and over again. Krapp is looking back on a love and we hear the yearning in his voice as he says “I lay over her, my head in her breasts. My hand on her”. Gambon’s Irish lilt and velvety voice make this little speech incredibly poignant. Is this the most significant moment in his life? As he listens to the tape, he seems bitter, he laughs and berates himself for looking back 30 years. He takes this spool off, puts it in a drawer and starts recording a new one, which he says will be the last. But he doesn’t continue. Instead, he gets Spool 5 out again and listens all over again. By now, we can remember the words too.

The play is only 50 minutes long and on first viewing, the structure seems loose. But Beckett was very precise in his plays – writing very detailed stage directions, down to the last gesture and piece of furniture. So it’s not loose at all but very controlled.

Whenever I go to Beckett, I always try to find meaning. He is ruthless, bitterly comic and dark. He is a pessimist's dream. But I think one of the things he’s trying to say here is to enjoy the moment, take the time to sit and stare, to look around you and enjoy what you have. When you look back, as Krapp does, even with nostalgia and longing, you won’t enjoy it as much as you could have done at the time.

A note about the venue – the Duchess Theatre has seen better days, and even though this play is short, it’s still £30 a ticket. Sadly, the evening I went, less than half the seats were occupied. Beckett isn’t easy, but he is rewarding and the theatre could re-think its pricing policy.

Friday, 22 October 2010


20/10/10, Young Vic

Teenage boy on the way out: "That was so athletic." Teenage girl: "This may sound really gay, but the health and safety on that must be really intense."

The latest from the (highly athletic) Icelandic company Vesturport, this time directed rather than starring Gisli Orn Gardarsson. A version of the Faust epic -- in English rhyme, no less -- as performed by the inmates of an old people's home including an ancient, broke actor who played every tragic part in his time except Faust and whose attempted (successful?) suicide sparks the arrival of Mephisto and his henchpeople Asmodeus and Lilith and the telling of the familiar story. The love interest is Greta, the virginal nurse with an overly-protective elder brother, who also works at the care home; in the old actor's dream of Faust she turns up not in her white nurse's uniform but a white basque and tutu-like skirt, and v sexy she is too.

The whole thing played out on a wide stage with a mesh back wall and three windows, allowing us to see through to the snow falling outside, and with three traps, from one of which Lilith first appears bursting through the floor and flying on a rope which deposits her on a black net stretched right across the auditorium ten feet above the stage, on which actors and acrobats disport themselves from time to time (at the end of the interval the audience returns to find a silent actor in a dressing gown performing rather laboured silent film-style stunts with a runaway folding wheelchair). Actors fall backwards onto the net from the flies in sudden flashes of light. They swing from a trapeze above it. They somersault over the edge and hang by their hands to drop onto the stage. In the love scene the happy couple spin above the stage on ropes twined round their wrists.

Vesturport are really good at integrating the physical into serious drama, but less good at the straight acting. The first scene in the old people's home drags. Not helped by the fact that English is not the cast's first language: they speak it well, but often with intonation just that little bit "off".

There are a number of meta-theatrical gags. The silent oldster is warned to "mind the pit" as he walks towards one of the on-stage traps: he steps into it and literally bounces out. At the end of the first half there's a gag about forgetting one's lines and having to be prompted by one of the care home residents with the text... who then comes on with the same text a minute or two later and reads out (in rhyme) the announcement of the interval.

There are some nice gags generally, indeed: the care home residents keep fit by doing synchronised dancing in their wheelchairs to a George Michael track.

The general aesthetic is grungy. Mephisto wears a string vest with blood stains, and a frock coat and white leggings.

It all ends in tears. There's a Walpurgisnacht orgy (with only one witch, but then the cast is only nine strong) during which Greta loses her inhibitions to the extent of removing the basque, downstage centre, before matters are broken up by her furious brother who is put to sleep with a potion only to awake once more to break up the subsequent aerial love ballet. By this stage, in a move typical of the rough and ready approach, the older actor playing Faust has switched bodies with the younger actor playing Asmodeus, to make him both a more convincing suitor for Greta and a more capable acrobat.

In all this the moral issues raised by the Faust legend, or this version of it, get a little lost. Mephisto is infuriated by Faust's insistence for much of the time that however much he lusts after Greta he intends her to remain pure.

The music was by Nick Cave.

Ian McKellen was in the audience.


18/10/10, Hampstead

A month on and I could remember absolutely nothing about this production. Nada. Zilch. That's what comes of not writing 'em up at the time.

Then I found half a page of scribbled notes and it started coming back to me. Nice middle-class couple's son goes missing on his gap year in the Far East. The mother has resorted to a "medium", a clearly fraudulent old woman, in an effort to find out what happened. The grandfather (ex-Labour Cabinet minister) has called in a 30-something TV producer who wants to feature the boy in a missing kids programme. Everyone's going spare. Then news comes through that the boy's turned up in a hospital. The embassy are putting him on a plane to London. Act 1 ends with the boy's appearance and a shocked cry from the grandfather of "Who the fuck are you!?"

In Act 2 the boy, apparently some lost soul whose memory has gone awol and who assumed he was the son because he had his rucksack when he woke up in hospital, has been taken in by the family. Gradually he turns from a sympathetic waif, with a wrily humorous take on his amnesiac predicament, into a mendacious monster who has clearly played this kind of trick before, a frightening cuckoo who has to be ejected from the nest.

I'm at a loss to explain why all this left so little impression. Among the many reasons to like and remember it: it was wittily and thought-provokingly written by Shelagh Stephenson; we have personal experience of the student-aged child on a gap year travel in the Far East; the TV producer, though a grotesque caricature and a gross libel on the profession, behaved in ways I have seen TV producers behave; it was generally well-acted by a very classy cast (my scribbled note reminds me that there was a lot of listening in this play and the actors listened convincingly and well, which isn't necessarily easy to do: I spent a lot of time watching and enjoying their reactions).

I liked especially the way it played with ideas of truth and mendacity and performance. The boy (Tom Weston-Smith) starts by nicking things (the missing son's T-shirts, the father's socks) and brazenly denying it (and the parents of course believe it). Then he gets drunk and vituperative in a scene with the mother (Julie Graham)... except that after he's gone she smells the wine and realises it's Ribena, so he was just shamming. The TV producer (Daisy Beaumont) lies from the start, quite casually: she seeks the mother's sympathy by saying "As a mother myself..." when she has no family. She asks to film the reunion and when told she can't does so anyway, with a hidden camera. And when she rumbles the boy and tries to alert the parents he turns her past lies back on her, undermining her credibility.

The father (Richard Clothier) is actually the step-father. He is a sceptic, in contrast to the mother's desperate need to know what happened to her son. He mocks the medium (Polly Kemp), and we see that he is right to do so, until towards the end the old biddy turns out to be pretty shrewd -- a successful exponent of what Terry Pratchett's witches call "headology".

The grandfather was Paul Freeman, a veteran. Old-fashioned style (watch the way he stands) but a powerful stage presence. A nice exchange when he introduces the TV producer to his daughter. "Are you sleeping with her?" she asks. "No!" he instantly replies. Then it emerges that they've "had a few lunches". To begin with he seems pompous and vain and a bit of a clown; later he's the only one with the sense to cut through the crap and make things happen.

All in all a sophisticated piece of theatre. Not everything worked. It was a play of two halves, evidently deliberately, but they sometimes jarred. There may have been a shade too many gags in the first part. Dr T had a friend visiting from Canada who remarked on the number of four-letter words: there was only one in the first act (see above) but loads in the second. There was a bit too much shouting in part two as well. And the set (by Francis O'Connor) was a problem: all white, with only one proper entrance. Things like occasional tables emerged from the floor, there was a staircase down through a hole in the floor, and there was a big window to one side of the curved back wall which also served as an occasional entrance/exit. All a bit of a mess. There were also, my notes tell me, overhead projections but I don't remember those.

Directed by Edward Hall, is first play as the new artistic director at this address. The critics were critical. Maybe the first night was a disappointment. I reckon it wasn't half bad. And somehow appropriate that I should so completely have forgotten a play about amnesia.


It turns out I did write it up at the time. I've just found the text...

This has had mixed reviews and I went fearing the worst. In fact it was a thought-provoking evening, though it had its longeurs.
Shelagh Stephenson play about cuckoos in the nest, identity, loss, truth and falsehood etc etc.
Middle class couple (her daddy a Cabinet minister) have lost their son: he went missing in the Far East while backpacking during his gap year and no-one has the faintest idea what's happened to him. He (stepfather, university English teacher) is sceptical; she (researching the life of a Victorian woman who lost her son at Lucknow during the Mutiny and ended up living in India and going native) is distraught. They are first seen with a medium, a fraudulent old busybody. Then grandad turns up with a young television producer who's going to make a documentary about the boy. Cue phone all from the Embassy in Bangkok, or wherever it is. The boy has turned up. Act One ends with his appearance at the airport and the horrified reaction of parents/grandparent when they realise it's not him.
Act Two charts the boy's progress from hapless and rather charming victim (lost his memory, no idea who he is, woke up in a hospital bed with the missing son's backpack next to him, assumed that was who he was, a waif and stray they take pity on and invite into their home) to a manipulative monster who lies routinely, uses aggressive language and violence and eventually has to be expelled.
It was well-acted, mostly well-written and mostly intelligently directed by Edward Hall (first play in his new job as artistic director at this address).

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


16/10/10, Barbican

I was too tired for this, really. I found it hard to engage, and the quieter, more rhythmic passages sent me to sleep.

A concert of two distinct halves by the Houston Symphony, conducted by Hans Graf (who he?).

The first half was conventional. We had Samuel Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, originally written in 1945 as a Martha Graham ballet score, reworked in 1947 as a suite for full orchestra, re-reworked in 1955 into a single, shorter piece for an even larger orchestra. And then we had Stravinsky's Le chant du rossignol (le rossignol, of course, being a nightingale), which started life in 1914 as an opera premiered by Diaghilev's company in Paris and was then reworked in 1916 as a ballet score-cum-work for the concert hall.

The orchestra was big, almost 90-strong for the Barber, crammed onto the Barbican stage. Medea started very slowly and softly to the accompaniment of a great deal of coughing but got much noisier: the climax was pretty crashing. I listened attentively and made several mental notes, which I'd entirely forgotten (along with every note of the piece) by the interval. I do remember the percussionists, of whom there were five, who assisted one another in a way I've not seen before (for instance by nipping over to dampen the sound of the neighbouring player's cymbals after he'd banged 'em together). The Stravinsky I preferred (though the others seemed to take the opposite view). Basically I thought it was fun, with lots of rhythmic passages and snatches of what sounded like syncopation; the nightingale's song made a number of appearances on piccolo, flute and solo violin. There was also a solo trumpet but I'm not sure it was playing the same melody. But once again I have forgotten much more about it than I have remembered.

The second half was a performance of Holst's The Planets accompanied by digital images of the planets themselves projected onto a vast screen above the stage. The orchestra was even bigger (the brass and winds in particular were augmented, though there were once again five percussionists) and the playing authoritative.

Being a person with a visual rather than musical imagination I enjoyed this much more, though putting visuals to music always seems to devalue or diminish it (though adding live orchestral music to, say, a silent film has quite the opposite effect) and even this couldn't keep me from nodding off now and then.

The music was robustly familiar and played robustly too. Though in fact it's not as familiar as I thought: after Mars, the opening movement, which is very noisy, the audience applauded; they then applauded after every other movement; I sat disdainfully on my hands having been brought up to believe that you don't clap until the very end; so I didn't put my hands together until Jupiter. At which point it occurred to me that there still seemed to be an awful lot of music left in front of the players, and they duly went on to play two more movements (Neptune and Uranus) which I had no idea existed.

The problem with the visuals was twofold. Firstly, we know a great deal more about the nearer planets and so there's a correspondingly greater array of imagery available of Mars (on which rovers have landed... we saw Nasa's animation of one on the surface, as well as some of the pictures it took) and Venus (through whose atmosphere craft have apparently flown sufficiently close to the surface to build up detailed images of the planets' volcanoes). The outer planets by contrast are scarcely known at all: they're just spheres, with or without rings, though their rocky, pockmarked moons are perversely much better imaged because the spacecraft flew much closer to them. All this meant there was a lot less visual interest towards the end of the piece than at the start.

Second problem: the editing. Perhaps because they simply had too much stuff to choose from, the film-makers habitually cut out of pans and zooms and travelling shots before they'd settled, often into the middle of another zoom or pan; one of the first things you learn from TV video editors is that this is unsettling for the viewer and should be avoided, or at least softened with dissolves between shots. There was also a certain amount of split-screen, which I didn't like, rendering the images entirely abstract. The film-maker, Duncan Copp, a Brit who started life as an academic geologist/space scientist working on the volcanic activity on Venus and became a TV programme producer, came on and took a bow at the end.

I'd like to say I'm a purist who prefers my music neat and unaccompanied by visual stimuli. This isn't actually true. Neat and unaccompanied music which is unfamiliar I find very difficult to get a handle on. Which may be why I like opera a lot. But adding pictures to an orchestral concert seems like cheating.

We had two encores. Something German and noisy which Mr Graf announced from the podium (I couldn't hear). And something quiet and tuneful which he didn't announce but which I think was Mozart.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


13/10/10, ENO

3 hrs 15 mins. Handel's tale of a defeated prince (Radamisto), his loyal wife (Zenobia), the tyrant who defeats him and covets his wife (Tiridate) and Tiridate's own downtrodden wife (Polissena), the type of the willingly abused and submissive partner. Oh, and R's father Farasmane, Tiridate's prisoner; and Tiridate's ally, Tigrane, who is in love with Polissena and turns out to be a decent enough cove after all despite a not-always-successful penchant for interfering. Symbolised in this production by dressing him as a seedy representative of the Empire in rumpled white linen suit while all around are in exotic "Oriental" gear of one sort or another, including Japanese-style armour for Tiridate and harem pants for Zenobia. (Some reviewers had him down as a wily Armenian, and I grant the fez is suggestive, but I prefer to see Radamisto-land as Afghanistan and Tigrane as a representative of the British, Russian and American empires, all of which have meddled in that godforsaken land to disastrous effect.)

Much though I love his music, there's no denying that, until you're familiar with them, each Handel opera sounds much like every other, and this was no exception. But it was jolly enough. Zenobia (Christine Rice) has a fine aria in which she offers to sacrifice herself to save her husband. There are several other good tunes. Radamisto (an American counter-tenor called Lawrence Zazzo with a powerful voice) is somewhat underwritten. Tigrane was sung by Ailish Tynan and provided the comic relief (Dr T asked why the part was written for a soprano: it wasn't of course, as a glance at the casting in other recent productions, who usually ask a tenor to sing it, confirmed).

The evening passed agreeably if unmemorably. The theatre was half empty, which seemed a shame given the quality of the music, the singing and the production. Here are some other reviews:


11/10/10, Donmar

This is the production where a leading actor had to be hospitalised after one of the pistols used in the duelling scene and loaded with blanks shot something into his eye.

We've seen this before, at the Bridewell before it closed: a Stephen Sondheim piece about the corrosive power of unrequited passionate love, featuring his usual witty rhymes, psychologically intriguing lyrics and one tune (though it's a good one, and comes in numerous different versions). I remembered that much, but none of the details. D said she couldn't remember it at all... but then at the very start leant over to me and whispered "I DO remember this!" The first scene features the young lovers in a post-coital moment. In this production they were in fetching deshabille, he in longjohns (I think) she in a white basque-and-negligee affair. But at the Bridewell she, and possibly he, were completely naked. Strangely, I had forgotten this. D observed how hard it is to take someone's performance seriously when the first sight you've had of them is in the nude.

We are among a bunch of Italian soldiers garrisoning some godforsaken outpost. The colonel has brought his cousin (Elena Roger, tiny and fierce and wearing great smudges of dark make-up on her cheekbones -- she is Argentinian, they tell me, and made her name as Evita and as Piaf, which explains the accent) who suffers from "nerves" or some other chronic condition which leaves her bed-ridden. The new young subaltern (David Thaxton), leaving his lover (Scarlett Strallen) in Milan, is conventionally polite to the invalid who mistakes his overtures for those of a lover. The lover back home turns out to be married with a child and thus their love, so apparently all-consuming at the start, is in fact somewhat compromised. A meddling doctor (Allan Corduner -- he was Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy) makes matters worse by suggesting the young man appear to be in love with the invalid in the hopes of making her better. There is a flashback (she was once married to a cad who took all her money and then dumped her), there is the duel when the colonel cottons on to what's been happening; there is the souring of the original love affair when the young woman refuses to leave her husband for her lover because it will mean losing her child.

So far all very satisfactory. The bit I find hard to take because it's psychologically implausible, although I can see how it might have appealed to Sondheim or whoever wrote the original story as a perverse twist, is the fact that the young man really ends up in love with the invalid. Why?

An all-male chorus (it was both sexes, I think, in the Bridewell production) leading to some cross-dressing in the flashback sequence. A surprisingly substantial band tucked away in a little room in a corner of the Donmar balcony (from which the band leader emerges to take his bow).


5/10/10, ENO

I know this was good but I remember very little about it two months later. Here are some reviews:

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


21/9/10, ENO

Notes written at the time and transcribed two months later...

The Gounod version, directed by Des McAnuff, better known apparently for his musicals. His experience with Broadway shows certainly taught him something tyro opera directors who started in the theatre often can't handle, namely the chorus and how to get them moving together and (especially) how to get them on and off.

The interpretation was questionable. Things have been updated to the mid-20th century and the Age of the Bomb. Old Faust (Toby Spence) is a jaded atomic scientist, apparently. The flashback to his youth takes us to World War One and soldiers in those funny French helmets. They returned from the war in a terrible state (as you did after WW1) but that made a bit of a nonsense of their jolly drinking song.

There were awkward moments in the staging too. He didn't seem to know what to do with Margarita after the witches' sabbath. She stood at the back while Faust and Mephistopheles (or their doubles) ran up and down the spiral staircases at either side of the set more or less endlessly.

Margarita (Melody Moore) was in a clumping blue dress and brown shoes and short hair. She was a big girl: I'd like to hear her in Wagner. She wasn't quite convincing here, for all her power and rich tone.

Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson) was supposedly suffering from the aftermath of a chest infection but it wasn't evident.

Acts 1 and 2 went swiftly. Act 3 dragged for me, though it started well with a Faust solo aria, very affecting. Margarita's music is less immediately appealing. The closing trio brings the hairs up on your head. The closing chorus is noisy.

I thought we'd seen it before with Willard White as Mephistopheles but it must have been the Berlioz version. This one concentrates on the love story: passionate stuff, except it's all a lie because he knows he's not for real.

The brother comes back, finds his sister's pregnant, fights the duel and dies cursing his sister despite the chorus urging him to repent so that he will go to heaven.

There was a spectacular neon cross at one point for Margarita's salvation. But she drowns the baby in the font.

It is long.


19/9/10, Lower Belvedere, Vienna

A special exhibition of symbolist works arranged around Burne-Jones's monumental Death of Arthur, which he worked on for decades and never finished. It's full of tall, draped, angular figures, almost all turned towards the recumbent figure of the king in his temple-cum-tomb in Avalon.

There's Burne Jones's Sleeping Beauty sequence which obviuously made an impression on me at the time since I wrote it down in my notebook but which now conjures up no memories at all.

There's Leighton's Flaming June, whose seductive appeal lies partly in the beauty of his sleeping model, partly in her bright orange drapes and the sensuous curve of her thigh which fills the centre of the frame but mainly, I think, in the gold of the sunlight on the sea in the distance which positively shouts at you to be joyful and dream of some Mediterranean paradise.

Also Walter Crane's book illustrations, and a Rossetti of a Roman widow, all long neck and impossibly long tapering hands.


19/9/10, Belvedere, Vienna

Another of Vienna's spectacular museums. This one comes in two parts, each one a massive neo-classical pavilion, facing one another at either end of a long, sloping formal garden of gravelled walks and parterres and water features, built on a low hill overlooking the city by Prince Eugene (or Prinz Eugen).

Here they have Klimt's The Kiss, an image whose familiarity can't disguise its perfection, nor the impact all that gold has when you see it in the flesh. They have a lot of ther Klimts too: a portrait of a lady with a spectacular peacock-eye motif cloth on her chair, early impressionist landscapes, and unfinished paintings that are oddly swirly and tentative.

They have lots of Schiele too, the later ones rather gentler than some of the more turtured earlier ones. Among the later pictures there's a nude portrait of a man and a woman and a child squatting, the woman with her legs apart, and a portrait of Schiele's wife.

The gallery puts both Klimt and Schiele into the context of late 19th century Symbolism and of some of the earlier academic work against which the Symbolists and Secessionists and Impressionist and the rest of them were reacting. So there's David's Napoleon (Why here? Victor's spoils?) as well as some proper French impressionists, including Pisarro landscapes, Manet portraits and Monet's garden.

And there's a Kolo Moser picture of an avenue of trees leading to a house, all blue outlines, which could be Cezanne.


19/9/10, Kunsthaus Museum, Vienna

This place makes the V&A look modest. There's a circular entrance hall, tiling, a black and white floor, leading to a grand staircase with enormous frescoes by Klimt and others. One woman gasped audibly as she walked in and saw it, and well she might.

And then there's a spectacular collection of Old Masters. A whole room full of Breughels... really, really famous ones: Winter, the Tower of Babel, Children's Games, a painting of Christ Being Taken to Be Crucified which I think is another version of the one in Nostell Priory written up here in The Guardian:

And I haven't even mentioned the Conversion of Saul (actually that may be the painting which in composition resembles the Nostell Priory Procession to Calvary), the Massacre of the Innocents, the Peasant Wedding... They're all full of incredible detail, chunky figures, the wintry scenes so effective because there's so much white in them.

There's some pictures by Holbein the Elder -- decent but uninspired -- alongside Holbein the Younger's Jane Seymour, Dr John Chambers and two pictures of young merchants, greatly superior to his dad's stuff.

There's a vast painting by Albrecht Altdorfer of Lot's daughters, their father an old man with yellow skin looking lecherous, one daughter fully nude lying alongside and largely obscuring his withered body, the other kneeling by a stream in the distance; and there's a Cranach of the same scene in which the daughters are discreetly clothed.

There's a memorable Durer of Maximilian I in a fur cape.

And a whole room of Dutch group portraits from the great era of Rembrandt and his contemporaries. It was a temporary exhibition so I should have given it more attention, but by that stage I was glutted.


18/9/10, Volksoper, Vienna

The Staatsoper was dark; the Theater an der Wien, its smaller house, was offering Semele (would you believe?) and D vetoed yet another production of that (we wouldn't have got tickets anyway: Cecilia Bartoli was starring). So that left the Volksoper, Vienna's equivalent of ENO, though a good deal less plush.

Bernarda Bobro was Violetta, variously in a white shift, a dressing gown and an unflattering pierrot costume. Her voice was beautiful, powerful, lyrical, secure top notes, exactly what you want. But she was very dumpy and tended to galumph: not a convincing grande horizontale. Oliver Kook as Alfredo was a bit underpowered, stout, chunky and about the same age as the tall, European Morten Frank Larsen playing his father (rather well). Sometimes the degree of suspension of disbelief required of opera productions beggars, um, belief.

The directorial conceit had the whole thing staged as Violetta's dream on her deathbed. We first see her lying on it downstage right, her maid at the bedside, before the action starts (actually it was a substitute: the lights went out and the sub nipped off and Bobro nipped on at the beginning). There was a huge veil or gauze across the stage for art of the time; the revellers were dancing clowns in skull masks waving their arms in artistic poses. At the end the director managed to get Alfredo and his father kneeling and standing respectively centre-stage behind the gauze, singing at the audience, while Violetta is expiring off to the side. A mess. There was much use of the revolve and steps down through the centre of the stage for entrances and exits; plus a single door centre stage rear in the middle of the cyclorama. It meant getting the chorus and on and off was a long drawn out process.

The orchestral strings were a bit scratchy but well-paced (I take it this isn't Vienna's number one band).

There were moments that summoned the required shivers. Violetta's second act duet with Germont; Germont's song about the young girl at the end of tghe act; the duet with Alfredo towards the end. There's no question there are some great tunes: what a shame Verdi abandoned them in his later work; presumably he found them too easy.


18/9/10, Leopold Museum, Vienna

Vienna's museums are large, numerous, imposing. The Leopold Museum is a collection of 20th century, largely Viennese works housed in a handsome modernist building in the Museums Quarter, which was once I think the Imperial stables but now houses several exhibition spaces including two modern structures dramatically inserted into the courtyard (this is one). Plus cafes and all the usual paraphernalia. We sat out in the autumn sun and ate.

My notes (this is written up two months later) talk about Klimt and Schiele as the Jekyll and Hyde of the Viennese Secession. In Klimt's Death and Life a collection of largely naked figures, including a baby, float among Klimt's signature patterning (which always looks like a patchwork quilt) on a plain background, while off to the left a skeleton with a club wrapped in a darker patchwork leers at them. The subject matter is dark but the treatment glittering and seductive. Klimt is a beautiful draughstman (especially in his early portraits).

Nearby is Schiele's Levitation: a predominantly brown picture of dead figures with staring eyes, in a landscape of flowers painted to look like wagon wheels. It's an image that prefigures scenes of the Western Front in World War One. A dark subject, darkly treated. Likewise a Schiele full-frontal self-portrait, with legs akimbo, all browns and yellows but for the nipples, eyes and genitalia, all an eerie red.

You get some idea of how Schiele transformed what he saw by a small portrait of his mistress Wally, thin and wide-eyed, close to a portrait of what she looked like in reality (very different). The painting, which is mesmerising, was the subject of a long-running dispute between the Leopold and descendants of its original owners after it was sent in 1997 on loan to New York for an exhibition at Moma and seized by the authorities: the legal dispute was only settled this year. Details here:

Kolo Moser was new to me. A very diverse figure. I noted Wotan and Brunnhilde. A series of mountain landscapes including one with a bright yellow house, some very straight, some playing triks with light and colour. His later works were straighter, in some ways, his earlier figurative ones very bold and expressionistic.

And then there are the architects. Otto Wagner designed the U-bahn stations. But Joseph Maria Olbrich was the revelation, not least for his Secession Building of 1897 which is utterly extraordinary and staggeringly original (the Secession were so called because they seceded from the National Academy of Art).

Too many of them died young, Olbrich of leukemia in 1908 aged 41, the other three in 1918: Moser of cancer aged 50, Klimt of a stroke aged 56 (the stroke brought on perhaps by fathering no fewer than 14 children on various women, I read in Wikpedia) and Schiele at just 28 of influenza.


14/9/10, Gate

Missed it. Had to work. D said 'twas entertaining but "girly" and it may not have been to my taste.

Friday, 10 September 2010


10/9/10, Royal Albert Hall

1 hr 30 mins. Late-night Prom featuring the new incarnation of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, fronted by Arthur Jeffes, son of the original's founder-composer, Simon Jeffes. An 11-piece, joined by Kathryn Tickell (on both Northumbrian small pipes and fiddle), playing lots of Simon Jeffes' tunes and a handful of Arthur's, including a solo piano piece he wrote for his father's memorial service (SJ died in 1997) which he played as an encore.

Most of the old favourites were there, and they haven't lost their catchiness. We had Music for a Found Harmonium, Perpetuum Mobile, Giles Farnaby's Dream, Telephone and Rubber Band, all of which we have on disc at home. Plus some I didn't know like Organum (on which Tickell played the pipes) and Swing the Cat (in which she joined in some very fast fiddle ensemble playing, folk-style, much better in this performance than in a recording we've heard).

The line-up is very different from the original, which only had one ukelele (not three on occasions), didn't have a double bass, did have a trombone etc etc. This had two percussionists and Jeffes on piano, with only one guitarist. It meant the sound had a very different texture, and crucially was poorly served in the hall by the mix (it might have been different for listeners at home...). To begin with we could hardly hear the cello and the other strings, and though it got better it still wasn't entirely satisfactory.

Also Arthur's pieces (with the exception of the piano solo) aren't in the same league as his dad's, while some of the slower pieces had me drifting off (it was late night...)

All the musicians were pretty straight with the exception of one of the violinists who wore black plus-fours or jodhpurs and a black top hat and pranced around centre stage in a very "look at me" kind of way.

I'm glad we went but I think we'll stick to recordings of the original in future.

Monday, 6 September 2010


5/8/10, Royal Albert Hall

2 hrs 20 mins. Ulster Orchestra with Paul Watkins and pianist Stephen Osborne. Orchestra all in black except for Watkins in a lounge suit with white shirt and tie. A good night for the brass, with fanfares and marches galore. But the hall very empty, despite the crowd-pleasing nature of the programme, perhaps because there'd been a free Prom all afternoon recreating (with the addition of a 2010 world premiere BBC commission!) the last night of Henry Wood's 1910 Proms. The arena in particular very sparsely filled. This programme all works which had been premiered (or at least introduced to British audiences) by Henry Wood at the Proms.

There was a fanfare by Arnold Bax (or Sir Arthur Bliss?) written for Henry Wood's 70th birthday in 1944, noisy and brassy, and then A London Pageant by Bliss (or Bax?). It's a piece of light music really, a march, very silly. It comes to a crashing brass climax twice, only for the violins to keep going underneath very quietly; there's a discordant shift to the minor halfway through but it doesn't last, it's purely for effect. At the end there's an enormous climax with all the brass, the kitchen sink and the Albert Hall organ (the organist was wearing ear defenders)! It made me laugh. The string sound very English (ie sub-Elgar).

Then we had Dorothy Howell's Lamia, premiered in 1919 when she was 21. I'd never heard of her. She lived until 1982, dying at the age of 84 after a blameless life teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. So why, on the evidence of this, did she not compose more? It starts very softly and discordantly with just two flutes. It ends very softly on a dying fall played by the strings, just after a rather haunting solo by the leader. In between some lovely string music and colourful orchestration, plus the odd melody. Passed 12 minutes very agreeably.

Then Osborne played Rachmaninov's first piano concerto. I don't know this, but I suspect it was a rather spiky interpretation of the slow movement, which I'm sure is supposed to be lusher and more tuneful than the version Osborne gave us. The slow movement is also very short, but then the final movement has a crashing false start followed by a thoughtful piano solo before the finale proper starts, so you get two slow movements in effect. D liked it very much. Osborne played with a score and a blonde page-turner: the first time I've seen a soloist using a score in a piece from the core repertoire.

Part 2 started with Sibelius's Karelia Suite. Not as driven as some performances I've heard, but in the finale there were numerous swoops and twiddly bits from the horns and the brass I've never been aware of in recorded or broadcast performances. One quiet bit was ruined by coughing.

Parry's Symphonic Suite was inoffensive and rose to a suitable climax (brass-heavy, of course, and rather Elgarian) but my quota of concentration available for unfamiliar music was exhausted.

Then Tchaikovsky's waltz and march from Eugene Onegin. Familiar, tuneful, noisy: what's not to like? (Hard to credit that this was "new music" in Henry Wood's time.)

The Prommers may have hoped for an encore, but Watkins marched on after two or three curtain calls, looked pointedly at his watch and dragged the leader off.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


31/8/10, National (Olivier)

1 hr 55 mins (no interval). Buchner's 1834 classic in a new version by Howard Brenton. Directed by Michael Grandage of the Donmar with Toby Stephens as Danton and Elliot Levey (very good) as Robespierre.

You can see why Grandage wanted to do it. It's about politics, which clearly fascinates him (Camus' Caligula, von Kleist's Prince of Homburg), and about Romantic/tragic views of the individual, history, fate. It pits the extremist Robespierre, who equates virtue with terror, against the sensualist Danton, now sickened by revolutionary bloodshed (though whether that's on ideological grounds or because he's overhwelmed by Romantic ennui isn't entirely clear).

The ideas are interesting. Danton describes himself as an epicurean and wrestles with questions of how to find meaning in a world from which the revolutionaries have banished God; Robespierre and St Just are Maoists ahead of their time, committed to permanent revolution.

But it's just one damn speech after another, static and dramatically inert (despite the dramatic premise). Robespierre and Danton only have one scene together: there should have been more. I wanted the clash of ideas, not just their presentation, one after another, in ordered sequence.

The climactic scene of Danton's trial is a series of speeches. D is in the well of the court, holding the jurors spellbound before being silenced and bundled off. But Robespierre and St Just hold the high ground, literally, at the centre of a balcony which runs round the entire back of the curved set. We liked the set by Christopher Oram very much: stained wood, with several doors at ground level and the balcony, entered from either end, with shutters that could be opened and closed to reveal floor to ceiling windows.

There were some interesting interventions by the women: a prostitute near the start with whom Danton consorts and (am I remembering this correctly?) who tells him her sad life story; Danton's wife, who tries to save him and poisons him when she can't; and Camille Desmoulins' Lucille, who goes fetchingly mad in a white high-waisted dress.


28/8/10, Kings Theatre (Edinburgh Festival)

A combination of cinema and theatre. A fascinating idea which turned out to be profoundly disappointing in practice. See Guardian review, with which I largely agree:

It seemed pointless, alienating to no good effect, the actors locked into a mechanical presentation with no room for interpretation or to respond to audience reaction. Also the lighting was poor, presumably because bright lights would show through the front screen or wash out the back projection.

And the story, such as it was, was a farrago of Latin American magic realism which required a good deal of patience to take seriously.


28/8/10, Assembly Ballroom (Edinburgh Fringe)

Do Theatre: Russian mime. Very disappointing.

Started well. Three women in white lying sleeping at the back of the stage, another in brown downstage left in a hollow cube with red strands of wool going up into the flies and then back down to the sleeping women (who held the ends in their mouths). A man, very old, moving slowly and with great difficulty, enters through the auditorium with four scythes tied together acting as crutches and as supports for a sieve above his head which deposits fine drifts of flour/snow as he moves and shakes it. A second man does the music downstage right, his equipment including a theremin and an amplified box on which he dances. The woman in brown pulls the other three up by the red strands of wool; they waken and dance. The old man is stripped of his overcoat and scythes and turns out to be a young man in a suit, no shirt and shaven head.

After that... I lost track. There was a lot of rather random activity. The scythes were swung. The women changed dresses. The muso did a solo. The man was tied up in a cat's cradle of red wool hooked up to the edges of the stage by the women, and then cut free. There was continuous droning music. I lost interest, the thread and the will to live.

The hall barely a quarter full, and this on bank holiday weekend in one of the venue's bigger spaces. Word may have got around that it was boring. But there was also a piece in the Scotsman next day saying that, though overall ticket sales were up for the Fringe, some of the bigger venues were reporting thin attendances suggesting that some kind of ceiling may have been reached in terms of numbers of show outstripping the available audience.


29/8/10, Pleasance Dome (Edinburgh Fringe)

A real cracker by a company that calls itself Pants on Fire, a staging of Ovid's tales of transformations and (mostly) frustrated love, thwarted, unrequited or otherwise problematical. Endlessly inventive, witty, touching, superbly-drilled, it scarcely flagged.

Directed by Peter Bramley, who is head of movement at Rose Bruford College and was among the last batch of students to train with Jacques Lecoq before his death. He clearly knows all there is to know about movement, mime and physical theatre. The cast are all recent Rose Bruford graduates, who act, sing, play instruments (trombone, piano, flute, drum, accordion) and in one case operate puppets.

The conceit had the stories updated to World War Two, a sort of homage to Powell and Pressburger, and one scene (Theseus in the labyrinth) was a pretty straight lift from A Matter of Life and Death with the addition of a routine involving nurses and an inert patient who needs to be given a bed bath and a change which (judging by a video on the company's website) is something of a Pants on Fire signature.

Daedalus and Icarus were in fighter pilots' flying jakets; at one point three girls in 40s evening dress crooned into a microphone (Did I mention the music? Original songs in the style of the 1940s by Lucy Egger); Narcissus was dressed in a fetching fedora and great coat (in a video projection); Tiresias was in evening dress like a 1930s Berlin cabaret turn; the nymph Salmacis wore a blue swimsuit; Echo was a talkative cockney char in Rosie the Riveter-style scarf; etc etc etc.

There were remarkably quick changes, using moveable screens (upright and horizontal), appropriately for a series of stories about shape-shifting. Cupid was a surly little boy puppet with the (female) puppeteer providing his face and voice.

One might quibble that the Narcissus projection was a bit samey, that the actors struggled with the cut-glass 1940s accents sometimes, that it flagged a bit two-thirds of the way through and that the Semele episode looked distinctly under-developed after repeated recent exposure to Handel's version. But these are quibbles. I spent most of the time with a stupid grin on my face.

Unquestionably a company (and a director) to watch.


28/8/10, Pleasance (Edinburgh Fringe)

Recommended by A, who'd seen it and thought it very funny. Four young people (three girls, one guy) playing adolescents, members of the Stokeley Christian Club, prepare to enter the local talent competition with their gospel rock band: drums and guitar initially, then accordion ("Er, hello, this is my dad's") and finally flute.

I took my producer, E, poor woman, who was polite about it but would probably much have preferred some decent stand-up. She also thought young Christians would have been deeply hurt by it, though I thought the satire was aimed more at adolescents generally than young Christians in particular (indeed, I'd hazard the cast are/were young Christians themselves).

It was episodic, cartoonish, with lots of short scenes capturing adolescent gaucheness and interspersed with music. The drummer was pretty good, but not much of an actress (she gabbled). One girl, with goggle eyes, pretended to be French. The other twisted her mouth into a curious shape to convey teenage self-consciousness. At one point they all put on paper masks over the top halves of their faces, the boy's a cartoon devil, the girls' with glamour-girl eyes, and two of the girls snogged in slow motion. What was all that about?

It could have done with much tighter direction, let down as it was by poor staging, with loads of fiddly props, and four chairs which were endlessly arranged and re-arranged in the centre of the statge.

Monday, 23 August 2010


22/8/10, Tricycle

All day, in three parts starting at 11.30, 15.00 and 19.30. A dozen short plays by top-notch contemporary writers and a handful of interludes, with a cast of 14, looking at the last 200 years of Afghan history, and in particular the consequences of successive, more or less well-meaning foreign interventions. Partly a history lesson (plays-plus-programme notes give you a very thorough introduction, not least to the distressing tendency of history in Afghanistan to repeat itself), partly an intelligent attempt to help us understand the multiple perspectives of Americans and Pakistanis and Russians and Brits, of Afghan farmers and rulers, of the Taliban, of diplomats and NGO workers and (at the end, movingly) British soldiers and their families. One play would pick up and expand on ideas explored in a previous play, or show the consequences of what had been done in an earlier section of the day. Political theatre of the best sort, taking real issues, examining them clearly, occasionally didactically but usually with imaginative sympathy and offering new insights as a result.

I knew much of the history thanks to reading David Loyn's book, Butcher and Bolt. He was one of many experts the production team consulted, and was there all day. We had lunch together. But there was real delight in seeing how some of the writers had responded and fleshed out the historical events.

We had some quibbles. The earlier interludes worked well. The only elements to be written by an Afghan writer, Siba Shakib, the first featured an artist painting a mural devoted to Afghan history who falls foul of the Taliban. Towards the end of the second sequence he and they return and his work is whitewashed over. And she had also written a couple of monologues featuring women from Afghan history: Malalai, the Maid of Maiwand, who reputedly rallied the failing fighters in a 19th century battle against the British and saved the day; and Queen Gohar Shahd, who built the mosques and minarets of Herat praised by Robert Byron and promoted the education of women, though apparently they had to marry a Muslim scholar first.

But there were also "verbatims" written ("edited") by Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian in which named individuals spoke direct to the audience. They included an historian, diplomats, Hilary Clinton and Gen Sir David Richards, a former Nato commander in Afghanistan and now head of the army. (Earlier he had brought 200 soldiers and defence community types to an all-day showing of the production, confirming one's impression that Britain's senior military commanders these days are a pretty sophisticated bunch.) These verbatims didn't work so well: in some ways it seems to be more difficult to deliver real speech convincingly "to camera" than to play a role. Presumably they were there to help point up some of the contemporary issues and give some geo-political context, but the plays themselves combined with the programme did that very well.

The plays themselves were short, and the whole day unfolded a bit like a really thought-provoking strip cartoon. Not a lot of depth, perhaps, but plenty of punch and pace and wit.

So what stands out?
(Written three weeks later)
I've been carrying the programme about with me all this time meaning to write up my thoughts on the individual play(let)s. But at three weeks' distance writing this blog becomes less an exercise in capturing the experience lest I forget it as groping through the fog of forgetting for anything that has stuck.
The first one was definitely memorable. Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys (who wrote The Libertine). Four British buglers stand at the gates of the fort at Jalalabad, just after the sole survivor of the 16,000-strong column that had left Kabul weeks before, has struggled in. This was the first (disastrous) Western attempt at intervention in Afghanistan.) They sound the advance periodically through the night to attract any further stragglers. They reflect on their reasons for joining the army (ranging from blind patriotism to "a certain lack of choices") and on the folly of the first Afghan war. When an apparently peaceable Afghan turns up, speaking in what to them are riddles, they first parry with him verbally then kill him. All this intercut with extracts from the journal of Lady Sale, who was one of 90-odd Brits taken hostage in Kabul: she survived the experience. A very powerful opener.
There followed Durand's Line by Ron Hutchinson (Moonlight and Magnolias), an entertaining exchange between Sir Henry Durand, the Foreign Minister of British India in the 1880s and 90s and the man who drew the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Abdur Rahman, the wily Amir of Afghanistan. Durand believes modern government is impossible without maps and borders; Abdur Rahman believes borders are meaningless lines on the map if they ignore the social, ethnic, tribal, religious, political realities and proves it by drawing a map of Britain and arbitrarily reassigning great chunks of England to Scotland and Wales. How very true.
Campaign by Amit Gupta was less successful: a special adviser in the Foreign Officer (accompanied by a sinister but almost silent American) quizzes an academic expert on Afghanistan about Amanullah Khan, the modernising king of Afghanistan in the 1920s, and his foreign minister and father-in-law Mahmud Tarzi; the academic, it is suggested (if I recall rightly) might consider starting a newspaper propounding a modern equivalent of Amanullah's pro-western views.
And in the next play, Now is the Time by Joy Wilkinson, we see Amanullah, Tarzi and Amanullah's wife escaping the coup that has overthrown him; their Rolls Royce gets stuck in the snow but the (British) driver goes off to send a telegram and returns to help them dig it out. The reply to the telegram reveals that Amanullah's foreign sponsors have deserted him, and that the modernising project has failed.
Part Two opened with a David Edgar play, Black Tulips, charting the increasingly disastrous Russian engagement in Afghanistan through a series of addresses by senior officers (and occasionally Afghans and their interpreters) to troops newly arrived in the theatre... but in reverse order. So we started in 1987, when the Russians were about to pull out and the whole business had become an evident disaster which the brass couldn't be bothered to hide; and ended in 1981, when the Soviets were full of (no doubt largely genuine) enthusiasm and a belief (just like the Brits, just like the Yanks...) that they were going to drag Afghanistan into a modern, progressive world.
Wood for the Fire by Lee Blessing was apparently a new addition to the repertoire (what did it replace in the original run, I wonder?) and pitched a CIA station chief in Islamabad, insisting on seeing and meeting the Mujaheedin whose weapons were being purchased with American money, against the wily general running Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. The general conclusion: the Pakistanis are a slippery bunch using Afghanistan as a way to line their own pockets and bolster their own position.
David Greig's Miniskirts of Kabul was a classic Greig fantasy in which a (female) writer imagines herself into a meeting with Afghanistan's last communist leader, Najibullah, holed up in the UN compound in Kabul, dreaming of a return to power while waiting for his enemies to take the city and kill him (which they did). It played post-modern games with the relationship of writer and character, and depicted Najibullah as both idealistic and brutal, which was probably right.
The Lion of Kabul by Colin Teevan was set in Taliban times. A western NGO worker is summoned to a meeting with a Taliban official (who of course refuses to look directly at her or address her except through her interpreter) next to the lion enclosure in Kabul Zoo. She is demanding satisfaction for some offence (I forget what) committed by a couple of prisoners; it slowly dawns on her that the "just" punishment deemed appropriate by the Taliban is to feed them to the surviving lion. A scary and convincing picture of fanatical extremism.
Part Three started wth Honey by Ben Ockrent. We are back with the American-funded militias, in this case Ahmad Shah Massoud and one of his long-time associates who obeys a summons to travel to Massoud's house in Northern Afghanistan. Massoud is another in that long line of local warlords and strongmen the outsiders back in the hopes that he can bring stability and a degree of progressive thinking to the mess. His associate, telling the story in flashback, certainly thinks he's the bees knees. At the end Massoud is killed by a suicide squad masquerading as a TV reporter and his cameraman; the associate survives thanks to his passport, which Massoud has thrust into his breast pocket and which catches a vital piece of shrapnel.
In The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn by Abi Morgan the representatives of a western NGO engage with the problem of Afghan reliance on the opium poppy as a cash crop and the education of women: a westernised women is trying to restart a school and persuade her brother to let his daughter (or her sister?) sign up; her husband was killed by the Taliban and there are suggestions that she betrayed him in some way. I remember a heavily-armed man and some farmers sitting around having a discussion, and an American who doesn't understand, but by this stage I think I was getting tired (what must the actors have been feeling?) and the memories are hazy.
Likewise for On the Side of the Angels, by Richard Bean (England People Very Nice), which traced the process by which a pair of Western NGO workers came to die in Kandahar, switching between the NGO office in Croydon and Afghanistan. I can remember no details of the plot -- only of the message, which seemed to be that meddling in things you don't fully understand can be fatal. (Was this about the role of women too? Or the opium crop?)
The last play was Canopy of Stars bySimon Stephens (Punk Rock, Pornography), which began as a two-hander involving a contemporary British army sergeant and private preparing to go out on patrol, escalated into a dettifying and confusing firefight, and ended with the sergeant back home in England, monosyllabic, a clear victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, being harangued by his wife (who wants her husband back and doesn't see why he, and she, should suffer on behalf of a bunch of ungrateful foreigners in some godforsaken, backward backwater). It brought us back to a similar place to the first play, the experience of the ordinary British soldier, and it was strangely moving.
(more follows on performances, production and overall message)