Tuesday, 29 June 2010


26/6/10, Glyndebourne

Written by Penelope
Macbeth has been staged countless times, as a play and as an opera. So coming up with new ideas and interpretations isn't easy. But director Richard Jones has ideas by the bucketload and they all seem to work, and add something to our understanding of the story. This is a very Scottish Macbeth with everyone, except the witches, wearing tartan. The witches themselves were splendid, though possibly not as scary as past incarnations. One was dressed as a babuska, complete with headscarf, one looked like a grungy teenager, with bright orange tights and the third bore a striking resemblance to Myra Hindley in a royal blue gilet. They certainly held your attention.

Of the main parts, Erika Sunnergardh was in strong voice as Lady Macbeth. Determined and sure in the early scenes, she fell apart in fabulous style and the sleep-walking scene was wonderful. She went back and forth on stage to a large washing machine, changing from one pair of white gloves to another trying to make her hands clean of Duncan's murder. It was mesmerising and moving. Andrzej Dobber was an effective Macbeth but the best voice of the night by a mile belonged to bass, Stanislav Shvets, who played Banquo. Whenever he was on the stage, you couldn't help but pay attention, as that deep, rich tone added to his authority. There was some fun too - Banquo's ghost was a radio controlled cardboard box, which I enjoyed but did detract from the horror of the moment when Macbeth realises his actions will haunt him. The staging was imaginative and the acting was solid. There were some moments (the slaying of Madcuff's family, when corpse after corpse is wheeled onto the stage) which will remain in my memory. Verdi's music is lovely but it’s the story which is centre stage.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays and the action rattles along at a fair pace. Which gives you the opportunity to enjoy everything else Glyndebourne has to offer. The grounds and gardens are beautiful and a lovely setting for a picnic. It's all seriously posh and and unashamedly elitist which provides a contrast to the football fever which has gripped the nation for the past couple of weeks.

Saturday, 26 June 2010


25/6/10, ENO

3 hrs 25 mins. Katie Mitchell's latest take on two of her favourite themes. One is the old "Dad promises to sacrifice the first living thing he sees to win the gods'/God's favour, then discovers in horror it's his firstborn" story. She did it with Iphigenia at the National, the girlish heroine eagerly embracing her martyrdom; she did it with Handel's Jephtha at ENO (about which I remember little except for its length and generally static quality, though I suspect it was rather moving at the time); and now she's done it with Mozart. The other is the legacy of Troy, explored in the Trojan Women at the National and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Young Vic.

A production full of Mitchell tropes. There was the wide, flat set, with lots of movement laterally across the stage but little depth, which gives the impression of viewing everything through some great picture window but makes handling the chorus a challenge. There were the dancing couples (appropriate on this occasion, during the scenes of celebration after Idomeneo's return). There was the video (limited on this occasion to shots of flowers and trees on what looked like 16mm film, projected onto a screen in a sort of conference room while Ilia sang of pastoral beauties; and to a wonderful seascape seen through the [picture] window of the family villa). There was the modern dress, which made them look like a family of wealthy Greek shipping owners surrounded by servants and staff and well-dressed hangers-on. There were the witty updatings: the scene in which Electra and Idamante prepare to set sail from Crete took place in a ferry departure lounge, bright sunlight streaming in from the door to the quay at one side, the posh folks secluded in an airport-style business lounge on the other; Ideomeno returned from the wars looking like a US soldier in desert combats. There were the Trojans, in distressed party frocks and ballgowns.
And there was the very busy business: in the first scene Ilia and Idamante come across as a pair of spoilt brats singing of love and sipping drinks brought in by black-aproned bistro-style waiters while people in business suits scurry across the stage, opening and closing doors self-importantly. The waiters were a constant, as were the business suits, as was the scurrying: there was much to-ing and fro-ing during the climactic scene on the beach as people brought on arc-lights to illuminate the sacrifice and a bodybag. Some might have found it distracting: I thought it was all justified, partly because it created a convincing milieu which helped make the emotional journey of the characters convincing; partly because it's a long piece and some of the arias are very long and, agreeable though the music is, it helps to have something to look at.

Tellingly though, there was relatively little business in the high points, which included a spectacular and pain-wracked solo for Paul Nilon as Idomeneo during the party scene which deservedly brought the house to a halt. Nilon was generally the key to the evening's success because he was absolutely convincing in his anguish at every stage.

Sarah Tynan sang prettily as Ilia and looked the part. Robert Murray was a rather too beefy Idamante. Emma Bell was Electra, wittily portraying her as a spoilt and scheming little rich girl well on the way to becoming an alcoholic lush. This made her mad scene and suicide at the end entirely convincing; and she did a witty drunk turn during the party; but in the very next scene this pantomime villain sang a beautiful song of departure which was difficult to take as seriously as was perhaps intended.

The text I think was subtly massaged. No mention of a sea monster rampaging across the island, only of a disastrous and destructive storm.

It was a very hot night and there were empty seats all around the auditorium, including immediately in front of us. A price break? People who couldn't face the Coliseum on such a steamy night? Dr T very cross with someone sneezing loudly in the row behind us. I very distracted by a young girl of about eight or ten just in front who fanned herself vigorously with her programme throughout: heaven knows what she made of it all but (apart from the fan) she sat very quietly.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


9/6/10, New Players Theatre

Daniel Kitson's latest theatrical monologue. A disappointment after The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, which we saw in Edinburgh.

Maybe that was simply a better piece (A's daughter Jo's boyfriend Steve says he thinks 66a Church Road was written earlier). Maybe Kitson's peculiar combination of story-telling whimsy and sophisticated jokes works well the first time you hear it, but seems self-indulgent, sentimental and really a bit boring second time around. Maybe the venue was wrong: the New Players is a long thin hall in which Kitson on stage seemed a long way away and his props (miniature models in a succession of battered old suitcases) were barely visible, whereas we were much closer and on three sides of him at the Traverse. Maybe it was too long and repetitive: at 40 minutes it might have been just right. Maybe there weren't enough jokes. Maybe he needs a director to collaborate with and reign him in. Maybe Gregory Church was better because it was an invented narrative in which Kitson as narrator played only walk-on parts, whereas Church Road is largely about him and, while there are plenty of wry smiles of recognition in his account of himself, he's just not interesting enough. Maybe it was all of the above.

Stage littered with suitcases. Kitson comes on and tells us the story of his infatuation with his old flat in Crystal Palace in which he lived for six years, which sounds pretty ordinary but which had lots of original features like sash windows and fireplaces and which to him was home, which he tried and failed to buy from his landlord several times, and which he eventually left two and a half years ago. Interspersed with blacked-out sequences of recorded voice-over which apparently related some of the things that happened to him in the flat, including a relationship with a woman who is otherwise never alluded to.

It's about what "home" means, and about nostalgia, he tells us at the beginning, which isn't some cosy dewy-eyed emotion but means in the original Greek fear of losing a place.

Moments of cleverness but generally dull.

Nothing quite as witty as his ad lib demolition at the end (he stutters badly when he's not got a script) of those people who chose to walk out in the middle to get more drinks.


7/6/10, Trafalgar Studios

Janet Suzman giving a powerful performance in a serious and intense play by Craig Higginson about an elderly white South African woman, husband suffering from Alzheimer's, on the point of leaving the farm on which she's lived most of her life for retirement by the sea.

She's interrupted by a young man, an executive with the developers about to turn the place into houses for the rich, who turns out to be the child (known as "Look Smart") of one of the farm workers who was effectively fostered by the white woman. He arrives, sharply-suited and aggressively polite, almost spitting out the word "madam!" with which he constantly addresses her.

As time goes by he mellows and a dreadful story emerges of (if I remember rightly) a young woman sexually exploited by the husband and then killed when he releases his vicious dog on her: the woman is in denial, the young man has been running away from this fact and from his ambiguous status in childhood and has now returned to... gloat? extract revenge? shine light on to dark doings? All of the above, perhaps. The play is about coming to terms with the past, about memory,

Absolutely superlative performance by Suzman, right close up in a tiny space (the Trafalgar's Studio Two) and another almost as good by Ariyon Bakare.


4/6/10, Coliseum

The reviews were only lukewarm, but we couldn't see why. We enjoyed it hugely, even though both Hanan Alattar (who sang Leila, the virgin priestess) and Alfie Boe (who sang Nadir, the lover) were suffering from throat infections (we couldn't really tell).

The plot is a nonsense, culminating in an awful moment when Zurga the village chief, who discovers that leila loves not him but his bosom buddy Nadir, sets fire to the village (full of sleeping children) so that the lovers can escape execution for breaking her vow of veiled chastity. A morally deeply troubling notion.

The set was fantastic: a contemporary Asian beachfront village on stilts in Act 1, a temple surrounded by concrete posts and barbed wire (standing in for the high cliffs of the libretto) in Act 2, another part of the village put together from oil drums and rubbish in Act 3. Getting the chorus on and off in these somewhat cramped spaces was challenging, but reasonably well-handled and worth it for the initial visual impact.

Updating the Oriental exoticism of the original to the ramshackle, barely sustainable community of today, somewhere in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, always in danger of inundation in an era of climate change, seemed to make sense.

Quinn Kelsey, who played Zurga, is a big feller, but had a musically and dramatically compelling Act 2 confrontation with Leila which was almost as powerful as the famous Act 2 duet for Zurga and Nadir: that has a beautiful tune, which the Leila-Zurga exchanges didn't have. But the duet as customarily sung (and as sung here) was not as Bizet wrote it apparently: the big tune in his version made only one appearance and its reprise was a modern modification. Penny Woolcock, the director, likened the original to a Teutonic drinking song and said, although they'd otherwise tried to stick to the original, they felt the better-known version of the duet was preferable. My new Penguin Guide to Opera is however very rude about the popular version, reckoning it makes no dramatic sense.

Perhaps the contemporary updating was as patronising in its way as the 19th century original (there were even a couple of camera-toting western tourists in Act 1). But it seemed to work.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


2/6/10, Young Vic

A disappointment after The Brothers Size though it was, we were told, by the same team. A US re-telling by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Bijan Sheibani, of the Eurydice story, set in the 1940s or 50s, which left one asking the question, Why bother?

Orpheus was a bit of a drip. The principal innovations were to have Eurydice's father sending her letters from the Underworld where he's the only inhabitant not to have lost all memory of his former life, and thus the only inhabitant with any self-awareness; and a chorus of "stones", who whisper and chant and try to persuade the underworld's residents to go with the flow: one was played by Becci Gemmell, who was so good in Fucked at Edinburgh.

Production details here: