Tuesday, 27 July 2010


26/07/10, Royal Court

The Royal Court was transformed into a boxing arena with the ring in the centre of the stalls and seats constructed onstage to mirror those in the circle and rear stalls.

Two young black kids pitch up at a white-run gym in South London c 1980, at the time of the Brixton riots. One shows promise and is coached to a UK and European championship, abandoning his friend in a fight with police along the way for fear of destroying his career. The other skulks off to America where he too becomes a boxer. They meet; the American, mentally tougher and meaner, wins resoundingly.

In a sub-plot the Londoner falls for the white gym owner's daughter, to her father's fury, and then chooses the father and fame rather than the girl.

Nothing especially remarkable about the plotting or the characters, several of whom are from stock, especially the black American trainer (sharp suit, sharp beard, sharp talk), and the white gym owner (hopeless with money, lives for boxing, always seeing his greatest hopes poached by cleverer promoters, at heart racist).

But effectively done with few false notes: a play as much about racism as boxing, but also about the 80s (a disastrous decade of rioting and recession and social conflict and terrible fashions), about Britain and the US and about the price people pay for success.

Roy Williams wrote it. Good performances by Daniel Kaluuya as the promising boxer, Nigel Lindsay as the trainer and Anthony Welsh as the other kid.

The fights were mimed, the knockout blows done with a lighting flash in slow motion. There were occasional soliloquys when the lights dimmed and our hero alone was illuminated in the ring, speaking to us.

As often with plays by black authors and/or with a largely black cast there was a strong black contingent in the audience, much noisier, more vocal, more engaged, laughing raucously at the jokes, than the usual theatre clientele of uptight middle class whites.


21/7/10, Novello

Six beefy Australians tap-dancing in boots for 90 minutes. There was the odd nod and wink at the audience, the occasional flash of humour, and at one moment a chap tap-dancing upside down on the ceiling. But in general an entertaining cabaret turn stretched way beyond its natural length.

There was the occasional thrilling moment, especially the driving ensemble routines. There was a witty routine with basketballs. And it was fun at the end when they donned wellies and started dancing in trays of water, drenching the front rows (who'd been issued with transparent plastic macs) in the process. Some of it looked difficult, even dangerous, including a routine in which they danced on sloping ramps (the set was constantly being rejigged, rebuilt and opened out) and a closing routine in which they danced on girders. The lead dancer had one of his fingers in a splint, presumably a result of an on-stage misjudgement.

But some of it simply misfired completely. Tap dances just aren't that interesting. And, though they ranged from highly competent to very slick, none of them was Fred Astaire.


20/7/10, National (Cottesloe)

Eugene O'Neill's first play. Two brothers love the same woman. One is a farmer, the other a dreamer, about to embark on a three-year voyage round the world with Uncle Dick, the sea captain. The night of his departure he and the girl declare their unacknowledged love for one another and he decides not to go. The older brother (one of nature's farmers, not one of its rovers) elects to go in his stead. Three years later the marriage has turned sour, the farm has gone to rack and ruin and the elder brother is expected home imminently to restore some sort of order. Interval. We left.

It was 'prentice work, overly schematic, over-written, given a perfectly decent but only workmanlike production by Northampton's Royal and Derngate, playing on alternate nights in a double bill with Tennessee Williams's first play for which we had tickets two nights later (and to which we decided not to go: it was a frantically busy week, we were both exhausted and in the event I had to work anyway).

Being tired can't have helped my appreciation, but seeing this confirmed my prejudice about many plays in the American canon. Quite simply I find them boring. It's something to do with their often self-consciously literary language and the fact that it's hard to identify with characters who've got themselves into some predicament or other largely as a result of their own stupidity or short-sightedness or some other failing. (I know, I know. What about King Lear? you ask. But the young O'Neill wasn't Shakespeare.)

D said of the whining heroine, as we left for the interval, "She needs a slap". To which the only reply was, "They all need a slap."

The others stayed. And said it wasn't bad. Though when I asked them to recall the plot they couldn't. They also said the Tennessee Williams two nights later was brilliant, but I'm not sure I believe them.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


18/7/10, Hampstead

Oscar Wilde's decadent fin de siecle hothouse flower, given a Mad Max makeover by a company called Headlong in a touring production which originated in Leicester.

I was glad we'd seen the opera the other day. The text Strauss set is remarkably faithful to Wilde, but I'm not wholly confident I'd have followed the original if I wasn't already familiar with the outline. But I thought it a powerful and more or less convincing reimagining of a piece which I imagine risks being insufferably camp. But there was a lot of shouting, and I have never seen so much spittle, not to mention a witches' brew of other fluids, including stage blood (some from Narraboth, a very great deal from Jokanaan's severed head), red wine out of jerry cans and a black viscous liquid which lay in pools about the stage and found its way onto the actors' hands and costumes ("I see BP have been," S whispered to me, with reference to the company's current little difficulty in the Gulf of Mexico).

The setting was a futuristic dystopian landscape, the cast in combats, touting modern weapons, the floor made of shredded tyres. It made a nonsense of some of the lines, but it made some sort of sense of a world in which strange superstitions went hand in hand with violence and unbridled self-indulgence and (frankly) outright madness.

It's Herod's play. Played by Con O'Neill with white face, red lips and manic conviction, he is a more grotesquely compelling figure than Salome (Zawe Ashton), a petulant and precocious teenager who suddenly grasps the destructive power of her sexuality, dressed in this production in black halter-neck bra and zip-down-the-front combats. For the dance she changed into an extraordinary pink wig, pink bra and knickers and see-through stretchy dress and a ghastly bright pink wig, and came on with a huge boom box for the music (she pulled the aerial up suggestively with her teeth), before getting down to knickers alone.

Wilde's dialogue works surprisingly well, despite the thees and thous, to anyone accustomed to Shakespeare, and they cast excavated it for its meaning assiduously. And like watching updated Shakespeare, you quickly learnt to turn a deaf ear to the inconsistencies: Jokanaan praised for the whiteness of his skin despite being an almost-naked black man with glistening skin; all the talk of Rome and Caesar.

The stage was bare, with nothing but banks of lights to either side and at the back, and a sort of climbing frame against part of the back wall. Jokanaan (physically impressive, booming voice but had a lisp) emerged from a circular manhole cover centre stage.

Friday, 16 July 2010


14/07/10, Donmar
Revival of Simon Gray's 1999 play (which apparently never made it to the West End) about repression, prejudice and hypocrisy circa 1950. We are on an island connected to Portsmouth by a ferry, but not the Isle of Wight. I spent a good deal of time trying to work out which island. Was it Hayling? Was it a fictional island? There was a ferry in 1950, running to Portsmouth, but between the 1950s and the 1990s a bridge was built. Hayling has had a bridge since 1824 so it couldn't be there, I thought. In fact I think it must have been... but pointlessly worrying about the question proved thoroughly distracting.

A bright only child is being taught the piano by a mittel European emigre, who lives with his caricature of a mother. The child's parents are a dull, buttoned-up pathologist and his bright and brittle wife, unhappily coming to terms with a stifling middle class existence of indifferent tennis and dried eggs after the excitements of war work, and desperate for her son to get a scholarship to Westminster so the family can move to London.

The mother was Helen McCrory, utterly believable in her frustration and sometimes outrageous behaviour and in her complex relationship with her son ("Do you love me?" "Of course I do, Mummy." "Why?" "Because you're my mother." "Couldn't you have found another reason?").
The father (and the adult son, returning to see his old music teacher at the start and finish of the play) was Peter Sullivan, new to us, buttoned up to the point of speaking in a barely audible monotone which annoyed me for a while but then paid generous comic dividends in the scene in which he tried to tell his son the facts of life (and never managed to, interrupting himself time and again until finally managing to blurt out the word "masturbation", at which point he's interrupted by his wife).

The teacher was Robert Glenister, his mother Eleanor Bron. I'm not sure who played the boy (there are three actors rotating in the part) but he was jolly good. The plot revolves around the teacher's evident sexual longing for the boy which he seems commendably to repress. Their relationship is platonic. But when they fail to return on time from a trip to London the worst is feared, the father goes round to see the teacher's mother, and disaster follows. The parents assume the teacher and his mother are Jewish, something the mother denies in outraged but futile terms. It is clear from what the boy says that nothing reprehensible happened. But it's also clear from what the mother tells the boy's father that there has been trouble in the past and mother and son have been forced to move more than once.

One of the play's great frissons comes when the teacher returns to confront the angry father who shouts at him: "you.... Jew!" One expected "pervert".

Well acted (though Eleanor Bron may have overdone the hand waving and cakes), neatly skewering not only 1950s hypocrisy but also our modern discomfort with the problem of paedophilia. Beautifully ambiguous. And simply staged, a grand piano on a revolve signifying changes of scene between the family's front room and the music teacher's, with a few chairs and tables.


12/7/10, Apollo

Written by Penelope
Secrets. All families have them. Some are trivial, others are monumental. Arthur Miller's All My Sons is about secrets. Joe (David Suchet) is accused of supplying WW2 fighter planes with defective parts, leading to the deaths of 21 men. His oldest son Larry, a pilot, is missing, thought to be dead but no body has been found. His wife Kate (Zoe Wanamaker) is troubled, there are many references to her mental fragility and she won't accept Larry's death. Their other son Chris has meanwhile taken up with Larry's former sweetheart and wants to marry her. It's against this backdrop that an enormous secret is revealed as the atmosphere gradually builds to the denouement.

The play is set in an unspecified small town in America. The set is gorgeous, we're on the back porch of a family home with weeping willows, ferns and grass. The neighbours are all friendly and pop back and forth to share a story or ask a favour. On the surface it seems congenial and David Suchet chuckles, tells anecdotes and looks relaxed as he reads the Sunday papers. But when Chris brings home his elder brother's girlfriend, Ann, things start to unravel. Her father was Joe's business partner and he's in prison, found guilty of supplying the faulty parts while Joe's free. Suchet and Wanamaker are both fabulous, as you expect. Suchet is a small man, but has a large presence on stage. He's light on his feet and yet he has gravitas too. You even manage to forget Hercule Poirot. All the cast are English but their American accents don't slip. Chris is played by Stephen Campbell Moore and he is a revelation - he's trying to keep everything in balance, everyone happy and also start a life of his own with Ann. He tries to look on the bright side of everything so when the secrets start to come out, Campbell Moore has to completely change tone and capture that feeling when you realise everything you took for granted, your foundations, are no longer there. It's good acting.

The secrets: Joe knew the parts were faulty but supplied them anyway and let Ann's father go to jail. And Larry realised, so he committed suicide rather than deal with it. Kate knows the first secret, but not the second. Zoe Wanamaker's anguish when it's revealed is raw and startling. Suchet suddenly starts to look like a small, shattered old man. Chris's world falls apart. The cast manage all of this without resorting to melodrama. Arthur Miller wrote the play in 1947 and while some of the surrounding attitudes of the play seem a little dated, this is a great production which still has something to say to a modern audience about families, lies, secrets and trying to do the right thing.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


12/7/10, Shakespeare's Globe

3 hrs. Rarely-performed Shakespeare... and there's a reason for that. It's not a very good play, one of his last, written with John Fletcher. Henry himself (Dominic Rowan, confident and engaging) is something of a cipher; the dramatic interest is spread too widely and too thinly across a number of central characters; the action is episodic without much in the way of a satisfying narrative arc. There seem no very good reasons why the play should start and end where it does other than political convenience: Shakespeare might have made a spectacular tragedy out of a play which included Henry's later years, but instead contented himself with a piece of tame political propaganda in which Henry is remembered chiefly as the father of the Virgin Queen, whose christening concludes the play, and (obliquely) as the father of the reformed church of England.

The best bits (in this production at any rate) were the scenes involving Katherine of Aragon (Kate Duchene) who was genuinely moving in her trial scene and near-death scene despite what A thought was a dodgy accent (Czech masquerading as Spanish): in the latter she embodied pale and pain-wracked desperation to perfection. She may have been hamming it up but the Globe is a space that can take and absorb any amount of ham.

Ian McNeice, he of the ever-wobblier jowls, was Wolsey and looked the part but didn't quite bring it off (insufficiently clear diction for one thing, as evidenced by the ease with which one of the other characters wittily parodied him at one point) so that his soliloquy about he vanity of earthly things after his downfall wasn't especially moving. And Colin Hurley, who was fine in the comic part of second citizen, lacked the heft and dignity for Cranmer, whose closing speech prophesying a glorious future for the infant Elizabeth, which should have been inspiring or at least gripping, had 'em shuffling and coughing.

Miranda Raison (who is in Spooks, apparently) looked suitably stunning as Anne Boleyn/Bullen, with the help of a great deal of make up, and caught the character's ambiguous nature nicely: she claims she can't be bought, even with the title of Queen, and then collapses instantly when told she's been made a Marchioness; she finds the masked Henry's amorous advances in the masque scene tiresome in the extreme and then (because she's worked out who he is???) suddenly flings herself at him; and generally comes across as a scheming little minx though the part as written implies the virtuous mother of a future monarch.

Amanda Lawrence from Kneehigh as the prologue/epilogue and the Welsh lady-in-waiting Virginia (to Anne's "I swear again, I would not be a queen for all the world..." replies "I would for Carnarvonshire") was as always excellent, but was also required to play Henry's fool, a near silent part with a puppet, which seemed a bit pointless.

The director Mark Rosenblatt (new to us) chose to stage the play as spectacle, which he chose to show us even when the text merely described it. There were several dramatic entrances for the king and for the pair of cardinals, the masque, and especially Anne's coronation procession and Elizabeth's christening complete with golden robes and singing choirboys and a golden canopy held up by serving men which entered or exited through the crowd. There were also some nice touches, including scenes which started centre stage before the characters disappeared through the door at the back, stll speaking (and in one case leaving a gaggle of eavesdropping ladies in waiting) to reappear through one of the side doors and continue the conversation round the front of the stage.

There was also a forestage, which would not have been there in Shakespeare's day, which made staging the processions easier but hearing more difficult: if an actor turns his back on the audience on the main stage there's a great big wooden wall to bounce his words back to us, but if he does it on the forestage the words just disappear. Worse than the Olivier.

The crowd included many tourists; A, who'd booked later and sat a little away from us, said that all four people on either side of her left at the half; the American next to me spend the whole of the first half thumbing through his programme. Someone should have warned them this isn't classic Shakespeare.

As Wolsey says at one point: "Worth the seeing", though not perhaps more than once.

Saturday, 10 July 2010


8/7/10, Barbican

4 hrs. I thought myself very stupid when, weeks after buying tickets for this concert performance with the intention of comparing and contrasting with the Paris production we saw at the weekend, we discovered it was exactly the same cast and crew. Was this to be evidence that it is in fact possible to have too much of a good thing?

In the event, no. Perhaps the singers, without McVicar's staging and the costumes to help them, had to work harder and so projected and connected better. Perhaps we were just a better audience, for (most of) whom English was our first language. The Paris audience liked it a lot, to judge by the rhythmic handclapping and multiple curtain calls at the end, but their applause for individual arias was muted and sporadic and they only laughed once.

We were a much more enthusiastic bunch. Act 1 still dragged. The counter-tenor was no better and there are only three good arias in an hour or more of music, including one each for Semele and Ino (who got big applause) and, of course, Endless Pleasure, in which Claire Debono seemed a little nervous.

But Act 2 is a cracker, with Richard Croft in great form singing I Must with Speed Amuse Her and Where E'er You Walk and Vivica Genaux getting huge applause for Iris, Hence Away. Both left the stage immediately after they'd stopped singing, so weren't there to acknowledge the applause. But Croft's ovation was so loud and prolonged he decided to return to acknowledge it... but got his timing wrong. His return coincided with the applause dying away. We resumed briefly out of embarrassment.

The singers' entrances and exits struck me as pretty random. There were chairs for all of them on stage throughout, as for a conventional oratorio, and sometimes they sat in them when they weren't singing and sometimes they drifted off stage. Could have been tighter.

Act 3 has both Myself I Shall Adore and No, No I'll Take No Less, within a few minutes of each other. Danielle de Niese gave her all in both (much more vigorously I thought than in Paris); she seemed a bit wobbly once or twice and took some sips of water in between the two arias, so she may have been struggling, but heavens! what energy. Both arias are completely over the top, but quite thrilling. There may not be anything subtle about this kind of performance but it's as exciting to watch and listen to as top-flight sport. There was also some entertaining by-play with Christophe Rousset (conducting his Les Talents Lyriques), who at one point took the mirror away from her. De Niese can also act, as can Peter Rose, in a wonderfully old-fashioned way, telegraphing his characters' reactions at the audience: he got several laughs as Somnus.

De Niese was dressed for stardom, in a bright red backless, strapless, bra-less number held up by two bits of string crossed over at the shoulders and revealing 1) quite a lot of rather droopy cleavage and 2) that she's a bulkier lass than at first appears. But the star singer was Genaux, with a deep mezzo voice at once creamy and harsh. At the curtain call she and Croft held hands: are they perhaps attached? or were they just happy to have upstaged Danielle?

A note on acoustics. We were closer to the singers near the front of the circle at the Barbican than we were in the second circle at Champs Elysees. Yet the sound was better in Paris: in London it often seemed thin and echoey. They speak of the Barbican's poor acoustics and one sees what they mean. The best bit was when Semele went to the rear of the stage, behind the chorus, where she was surrounded on three sides by wood, to sing a lament and we could hear every note.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


6/7/10, Covent Garden

ROH production by David McVicar revived with Angela Denoke as Salome, Johan Reuter as Jokanaan, Gerhard Siegel as Herod and Irina Mishura as Herodias.

Seeing both Salome and Semele within a week leads to the inescapable conclusion that girls whose names begin with S and include L, M and lots of vowels are best avoided in real life, but they're god's gift to opera composers.

Strauss's psychological study of erotic obsession just about makes the heroine's transition from bored little rich girl into murderous maniac convincing. The music helps a lot. Like Janacek Strauss sets words to music very carefully and closely. The only tunes in this are in Salome's dance, though there are hints of melody in Jokanaan's prophecies. Surtitles don't quite make up for the lack of immediacy you'd get from words you could hear and understand instantly, but sitting through this in the days before surtitles must have been torture, since the words are so vital.

Set in the basement of Herod's palace, where soldiers lounge and the female help are naked (or nearly so) at the start and the tiles are stained. The soldiers' uniforms are vaguely World War Two and the women's clothes flapperish. The piece as written is mildly anti-Semitic, but there's a tendency for modern directors to give anything with a Jewish connection overtones of the Holocaust, and this is no exception. Is this some sort of concentration camp? Are the women abused? Have the soldiers been extracting sexual favours by force? It turns out, once they have (very slowly) dressed, that they're simply maids, on the staff.

Upstairs the posh folks are at dinner. From the Upper Amphitheatre only their chair legs were visible below the top of the proscenium. Mentally I'd started drafting my furious letter to Covent Garden's management about such dismissive treatment of those of us in the cheap seats. But soon the jaded toffs descended a great circular staircase toplit by brilliant moonlight to slum it in search of thrills down in the basement/on the main stage where even those of us in the gods could see them.

Salome, in a long white dress, comes first, goading the captain of the guard with teasing hints of sexual favours into letting Jokanaan out of his cistern. She demands to touch his body, touch his hair, kiss his mouth; he rejects all three. The captain, in an implausible touch, kills himself at this evidence of Salome's contempt.

Enter Herod and the rest from the banquet, demanding Salome's return. When she refuses they set up shop downstairs with a bunch of waiters, half a dozen bickering Jews (they can't agree on whether mortals can see God), a drunken topless girl and the soldiers. There are a good many singing parts but even more non-singing: Dr T thought the non-singers were well-handled and well-integrated into the action, unlike the pointless scurriers at Idomeneo the other other night.

The dance wasn't the usual genteel striptease (though Ms Denoke has the physique for that) but a curious glimpse into Salome's tortured sub-conscious. The set and the rest of the cast melted away for the duration. She and Herod mimed and danced through a series of rooms. The rooms were represented by walls and doors that travelled across the stage at right angles to the audience from stage right to stage left, with a bright light shining from stage left. In some of the "rooms" a huge video projection was thrown onto the back wall, of a woman's naked back or a doll or a zip being teased apart, and each room came with props (mainly clothes) manoeuvred on and off by the maids. In the first room was a chair and a doll: Herod sat on the chair and Salome sat on Herod. In a later room Herod helped her on and off with a white party dress, dancing with her when it was on. Intimations in all of this of incest and child abuse, presumably.

After the dance Herod tries hard to wriggle out of his promise to Salome when she repeatedly, stonily demands Jokanaan's head on a platter. He rows with Herodias, played as a monstrous Margaret Dumont-like figure in a bright blue ballgown with a tail Mishura had to keep flicking imperiously out of the way with her foot (especially when dancing with Herod).

The executioner, who has been standing by throughout dressed in a greatcoat with a huge sword, discards the coat and descends naked into the cistern to sever Jokanaan's head. (It's a psychoanalyst's wet dream, this opera.) Super musical atmospherics here and at many other points: film composers owe a lot to Strauss.

The head proves to have huge amounts of blood in it, which transfers itself gorily to Salome's white shift as she cradles the head and sings madly for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Until at the end Herod can take no more and in the closing seconds orders her dead.

Powerful stuff, well-staged, well-acted, well-sung. We look forward to Oscar Wilde's original at Hampstead in a week or two.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


5/07/10, Pompidou Centre, Paris

An exhibition devoted to dream cities: "an architecture of sensation, dream and entertainment that spread throughout the world over the 20th century." Starting with Dreamland at Coney Island and the Paris Exposition (with M Eiffel's erection), moving onto Salvador Dali's "Dream of Venus" pavilion for the New York World's Fair of 1939 (an excuse, decidedly risque for the time, to present lots of naked and semi-naked women) and then into a welter of fantasy cities.

It was best when it documented real places, like Las Vegas. There were Martin Parr's photographs of the place and a stunning film by Olivo Barbieri of Vegas by night and by day, shot from a helicopter with a fancy lense such that much of the field of vision appeared out of vision, like pictures of a model. And there was fascinating documentary material on theme parks in China where the world's landmarks ave been rebuilt in miniature replica.

But it all became tedious when it focussed on the frequently self-indulgent imaginary cities dreamt up by contemporary artists, even artists with as much going for them as Picasso.

I liked the clips from 42nd Street and The Truman Show.


5/07/10, Pompidou Centre, Paris

A major retrospective in which the reclusive Freud evidently collaborated wholeheartedly, since it contains a video of him at work (well, almost... it chronicles the lengthy preparations for continuing work on a large nude, including the coffee drinking, fussing about getting the easel into the right position for the light, comparing the colour of paint on the brush with the colour of the model's flesh, and then fades out just as the first brush-stroke is applied) and another which features the great man himself walking along the Regents Canal with a hawk on his arm, wandering round a skeletal studio set of his atelier with a naked dancer and a zebra (reference to an early picture in which a bright red zebra sticks its head through the window of the artist's studio) and film of what I take to be Freud's (unbelievably decrepit) studio on the top floor of one of those splendid white millionaires' houses in Holland Park, with views of Westfield. The naked model in the first film is also the maker of the second and responsible for the still photographs in the exhibition, a man called David Dawson.

There are the expected massive nudes and a clutch of paintings of the artist's garden, all dense unkempt foliage with the light shining through it, unbelievably detailed and obsessive. There are also etchings, which at first glance look like charcoal drawings but which on closer inspection turn out to be made up of thousands of tiny scribbles and cross-hatched lines. There are self-portraits, portraits and paintings apparently based on works by other great masters.

The principle memory is of the infinite variety of Freudian flesh. Where you and I (and it seems from one photograph which includes the real-life model and the picture painted of her, the camera) see a more or less homogeneous pinkish tone, Freud sees a dozen or 20 different colours, reflecting not only shadows but also presumably different textures.

There is lots of evidence of repainting and overpainting and reworking; flashes of humour (a recent picture entitled The Artist Surprised by a Naked Admirer has a fuzzy, ageing Freud standing at the easel staring at the viewer, with a naked woman sitting at his feet clutching his legs; a painting called Sunny Morning, Eight Legs in which a naked man sits on a bed next to a sleeping dog while an extra pair of male legs poke out from under the bed); and a tendency to return to the same subjects, same poses, same corners of the studio with a regularity that can only be called obsessive. He loves crumpled sheets and paper, pipework (there's a lot of plumbing in his works, from radiators to ageing geysers and dripping taps) and deliberately awkward and gawky compositions.

Not always a comfortable artistic presence but a very considerable one.


4/07/10, Opera Garnier, Paris

Paris Opera Ballet based on Degas' paintings of dancers. A promising young dancer with a pushy mother turns up at the ballet school where she strives to attract the attention of the ballet master but is upstaged by the prima ballerina. She does however attract the attention of one of the "abonnes" (which we think means subscribers or season ticket-holders). At a party she dances with him, but on a subsequent visit to a nightclub grows jealous when she sees him with some prostitutes and steals his wallet. She's discovered, imprisoned and ends up as an uncharacteristically willowy washerwoman. There are hints (the narrative not being entirely clear) that mother in an earlier life may have been a disreputable can-can dancer and wants better things for her daughter.

The rather anaemic original score made more use of tubular bells than Mike Oldfield. John thought the score very bitty, with lots of musical ideas none of which were properly developed. The jazzy ensemble bits were better than the quieter, more reflective music or the big solos. Really it called for a full-blooded pastiche of Tchaikovsky. Apparently there was a bit of T in there, in the star dancer's solo: I of course failed to recognise it but D did.

There was plenty of dance and plenty of real ballet steps (which meant relatively little mime) which was a plus, even if it meant the storyline wasn't always clear.

The lighting designer had fun, with expressionistic touches like our heroine behind bars in prison, backlit, and a dream sequence during the ball scene in which a dramatic diagonal of light slashed across the stage along which our petite danseuse danced backwards elegantly on pointe, and then the abonne lurched towards her on his toes as if being dragged. There were footlights, too: you don't see them often nowadays. That was for a scene in which four of the dancers came out in front of the curtain, striking poses: pure Degas.

Degas himself apparently made brief appearances as a "man in black" and artist. He had relatively little to do. There was no hint of the real Degas' clearly obsessive interest in young dancers. And no tin bath.

The Garnier (an unbelievably large and pompous building with a Chagall ceiling dating from 1964 in the auditorium which I had forgotten and John greatly liked) was full of little balletomanes and their pushy mothers, lots of people photographing one another on the grand staircase (so evidently, like us, not regulars). I wanted to ask some of the pushy mothers and offspring what they thought of this rather bleak view of the ballet: the ballet master and star dancer dismissive of our heroine; the abonne clearly interested only in a bit of skirt; the mother channelling her own failures and frustrations into her daughter's putative career; disaster waiting just around the corner. But I didn't think my French would be up to it.


4/07/10, Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris

A misleading title for a nonetheless satisfying exhibition of works by Spanish masters from a collection (Perez-Simon) in Mexico, never before exhibited in France, in a museum housed in one of Paris's most spectacular mansions.

The El Greco was a huge disappointment: a head and shoulders portrait of Christ, little bigger than a postage stamp. There was lots of Dali. Some Picasso. Some Joan Miro. Some (enormously kitsch) Murillos. Several powerful pictures of agonised saints by Jose de Ribera, full of chiaroscuro effects.

But the highlight for me was Joaquin Sorolla, the man who seems to have brought impressionism to Spain with his brightly-lit and brightly-coloured canvases and bold brushstrokes. The earliest Sorolla was painted in the 1870s, a terrace near Naples overlooking the sea reminiscent of a David Roberts watercolour in the handling of Mediterranean light filtered through the vine leaves on the pergola. There were oil sketches of naked boys in the sea and of a gnarled fisherman's face. A specatcular large picture of the fish being brought ashore and sorted in baskets on the beach. A great swirly image of cattle being driven into the surf. A nude woman emerging from bathing in the sea. A portrait of a fellow artist in severe black.

Searching for a Sorolla picture to illustrate this post I find lots, but few from the Perez-Simon collection (an indication perhaps of how unfamiliar many of the paintings in the collection must be compared to those in major galleries), and also a website that offers to sell you hand-painted copies of some of them (allow 14-21 days for delivery) which implies that I am not alone in my liking for them!

The museum itself started life as the home of a married couple, she (Nelie Jacquemart) an artist, he (Edouard Andre) filthy rich. There's a permanent collection of old masters, several rooms full of Italian Renaissance sculpture, woodcarving and the like (much of it built into the fabric), and a spectacular rococo staircase with a 15th century fresco by Tiepolo "rescued" from a Venetian villa and reassembled in Paris, though much of the colour has alas faded.

You enter via a grand gateway and tunnel from the Boulevard Hausmann and emerge into a large open space in which a double drive sweeps up from the tunnel (and a second tunnel at the far end of the property), curving back round and up to the front door, which thus faces away from the street; at the back of the house a there's a first-floor terrace above the street frontage. We arrived just as the Paris Harley-Davidson club was assembling for a (very noisy) meeting, grizzled men in leathers (and equally grizzled womenfolk) parking up four abreast along the boulevard before processing around the city. We saw them later jumping red lights and stopping the traffic near the Opera Garnier.


3/07/10, Opera de la Bastille, Paris

2 hrs. La Petite Renarde Rusee, in French. We'd never seen it before, in English, French or Czech, and I'm in two minds about it. Like Janacek's other operas, and unlike the classics of the 19th century repertoire, the words seem to take precedence: set with great care, the music supporting but not often overwhelming them. Fine if you speak Czech; less happy if you're relying on surtitles; less happy still if those surtitles are in exceedingly idiomatic French.

Structurally there's a problem too. The work started life (literally) as a comic strip, a narrative by a local newspaper journalist alongside some fetching drawings. So you have a number of (very) short scenes involving a multitude of characters, animal and human. The result is infuriatingly episodic, full of action which seems arbitrary (because not properly prepared dramatically), with little opportunity for character development. Even La Petite Renarde herself, who is on stage more or less throughout, is no more than sketched in as a naughty little thing.

The first two acts are all derived from the comic strip and culminate in our heroine's wedding to a handsome young fox. The best bit was the love duet for the fox and vixen in act two. The third act was apparently written by Janacek himself. In it the vixen has a brood of little ones, but has not lost her teasing habits. She teases the poultry man... and he shoots her, bang! Suddenly she's dead. This is striking and plausible. It was also curiously moving, not so much because of the death but because of the scene that follows in which the animals (children dressed in silly costumes as birds, insects and a hopping green frog) return to mourn. In scene one the frog leapt onto the gamekeeper as he slept and woke him, leading to his capture of the vixen; in the final scene the gamekeeper returns and spots the frog and says he knows him... only to be told by the frog that that was his grandfather. For some reason it made us both cry.

The vixen was sung by Adriana Kucerova, who looks the part and is Czech (I think). But I had serious reservations about the production and in particular the design: a field of enormous comic book sunflowers, out of which the animals emerged in the first scene; a gigantic modern farm in which the vixen is imprisoned among people dressed as comic book cows and chickens; worst of all a railway line running left to right across the stage, in every scene (though exact positioning varied from scene to scene). It made walking across the stage a trial; the point I suppose was to highlight the presence of man and the things of man everywhere, but it just got in the way.

Lots of kids in the audience. Dunno what they made of it. They might have found the gaily coloured set and costumes and the rather arbitrary plotting appealing; they may have found it baffling or frustrating (as I did).

We had to change seats. We'd been booked in the front row of the vertiginous second balcony of the Bastille; I felt deeply uncomfortable. Luckily it wasn't full and a couple just away to our left, three or four rows back, agreed to swap for our better seats.


3/07/10, Jeu de Paume, Paris

Serralongue takes photographs, then blows them up big, of pre-planned news events like conferences and demonstrations. They're shot wide or from unexpected angles, revealing not only the event but also its context, the artifice involved (set dressing, posters, artful repetition of poses etc etc). We saw indigenous people demonstrating in South America (their brightly-painted wooden folding chairs sinking into the mud under a sky of bright blue and fluffy white clouds); we saw the same group of black protesters trekking round a city to display a banner in different locations; we saw press conferences in the cavernous halls in which international conferences are staged... or alternatively in the tiny lecture theatres which are all that's needed to hold the handful of international news agencies that turn up. And there was a sequence of pictures taken on a hazardous environments course in the UK. I recognise this world, and I find his sideways look at it produces intriguing insights, but D I think just found it rather boring. The pictures' impact is reduced by displaying them in sequences, many of which seem repetitive.


3/7/10, Jeu de Paume, Paris

A South African artist and videomaker, Kentridge creates multi-screen installations, often "political", involving animation, projection, vivid use of sound, mechanical creatures etc etc. The most striking in this exhibition included an installation based on Mozart's Magic Flute involving two large toy theatres, onto one of which black and white images were projhected to tunes (especially the Queen of the Night's aria) from the opera, while on the other as well as the projections a succession of mechancial figures and devices (like a megaphone on a stand) performed. There was a distorted projection (of images of the veldt and of war, planes, birds, bombs, telegraph poles, clouds) onto a spinning disc mirror which reflected an unindistorted images onto a cylindircal mirror in the centre. There was the room full of videoscreens mainly featuring Kentridge himself, drawing a self portrait which then turned into the artist, who walked away; the blank sheet of paper on which lines and images appeared and disappeared as Kentirdge;'s hands "drew them"; the cup and saucer with a mind of their own; the ladder with which he clkimbed a wall covered with his own images. There's lots of use of stop-frame and reverse-frame animation. In one room was a sculpture of a procession of people bearing burdens, who then turned up stylised in an animation. According to the exhibition programme all this had something to say about apartheid and post-colonialism generally, but I couldn't really see it. The work was mesmerising and bore watching for long periods, much helped by Kentridge's use of audio and music, but his own charcoal drawings lacked something.


2/7/10, Theatre de Champs Elysees, Paris

It was, admittedly, absurdly extravagant to go all the way to Paris to see Semele after going all the way to Brussels to see it last year. And it becomes even more absurdly extravagant when (to make the trip worthwhile) you go to another opera, the ballet and three or four exhibitions as well. Not to mention deciding to book tickets for a concert performance of Semele in London six days later without realising it was the same cast and production...

But it's such a wonderful piece and (happily) grows on one with every hearing.

This was a revival of a David McVicar production from a few years ago, with Danielle de Niese newly-cast as Semele. She looks the part, playing her as a sort of coquettish 16-year old taken up by a much older, much more sophisticated man. There was a nice moment in the first act when the rivalrous sisters had a spat from which their father had to separate them, de Niese pointing "It was her" as he did so. And they giggled together convincingly when Ino was catapulted into heaven at Jove's command. She was sly, mischievous, self-mocking. In other words she can act as well as sing.

As to her voice... She pulled out all the stops for Myself I Shall Adore (pretending to hide the mirror, smirking as she gazed at herself) and for No, No I'll Take No Less especially. There are plenty of vocal pyrotechnics. But while the English tradition is to enunicate each syllable in the showpiece arias with crystal clarity ("Gay-hazing, gay-ayzing, gay-hay-hay-ay-ay-hay-hay-hayzing") Ms de Niese seems to give each note a different vowel sound. The purist in me suspects this may be cheating, but it's undeniably thrilling. On the other hand it makes it hard to hear the words -- something you could level at most of her performance.

That couldn't be said of the bass Peter Rose, who sang Cadmus the father and Somnus: you could hear every word and as Somnus he even managed to get the solemn Parisians to laugh.
There was a disappointing counter-tenor as the rejected bridegroom Athamas. Richard Croft as Jupiter didn't quite have the necessary heft for some of the role but sang Wheree'er You Walk with beauty and grace and got a deserved ovation.

Ino and Juno were sung by the mezzo Vivica Genaux. I'd assumed from her name that she was a local lass, but it turns out she's American too, born in Alaska. She was suitably villainous.

Endless Pleasure was sung by another soprano, Claire Debono, as Cupid. I had forgotten/failed to realise that the song was originally written for someone other than Semele (scarcely surprising really: it refers to her in the third person). After that ravishing aria at the end of Act One she doesn't have much to do, a problem resolved by McVicar who dressed her in sequin-covered scarlet and a pair of dark glasses plus long stick and had her mime the role of blind Cupid in subsequent scenes as Jupiter's hanger-on, alternating between Ariel-like manipulator and hapless victim (he was left fumbling after Semele knocked aways his stick during No No I'll Take No Less, a sign presumably that love was on the wane).

Having Cupid in the cast reminds you what an ensemble piece this is. And what a lot of great songs, too! Including Jupiter's I Must with Speed Amuse Her and Juno's Iris, Hence Away and a first act aria for Semele which I don't recall from earlier productions and which she sang solo in front of a drop curtain while the scene was changed behind it. It was a device McVicar used several times, and it worked perfectly in the highly artificial and stylised context of an 18th century work, though in the case of one of Juno's arias the curtains were closed not for a scene change but to draw a discreet veil over Jove and Semele's love-making. When they reopened he was smoking a post-coital cigar.

The principals were in immensely elaborate 18th century costume (or plain brown broadcloth for Cadmus and Athamas and for Ino); the chorus (men and women alike) in white tie and tails. The set, by Tanya McCallin, was a semi-circular back wall with three doorways; a central disc rose at an angle for the scenes set in heaven, an enormous bed covered in cushions at its centre on which Jove and Semele made love and Somnus slept. Towards the opera's end the bed had disappeared, and Semele made her final exit as she burns in Jupiter's fire through a circular trap while Jove held her cloak. A puff of smoke emerged.

It was a wittily-characterised production with sensible business, quite unlike the weird production at the Monnaie last year, presumably a reflection of the fact that McVicar has complete faith in the quality and dramatic carrying-power of his material.

The music came from Christophe Rousset and Les Talents Lyriques, however: who were also the band in Brussels. Not quite as nuanced a performance as John Eliot Gardner's, which we have on disc.

Jupiter was portrayed as a rich man who might just be starting to tire of this pretty little plaything he's acquired: so much so that at one point he takes off his black necktie and apparently contemplates using it as a garrotte, before employing it as a blindfold instead... and singing Where'er You Walk. That was the only point where the interpretation jarred (as in Idomeneo the other night): such a beautiful love song comes oddly from a character you've just seen exasperated.

It was a very hot night but the Parisians were dressed largely for comfort not speed, cool rather than elegant. Which was reassuring because the walk to the theatre (which is not, as billed, in the Champs Elysees but several blocks away) takes you past the likes of Dior and Chanel in the Av Montaigne and some seriously rich people.

It's also a beautiful theatre, and an historic one, with a spectacular art deco exterior, with massive square recessed panels and windows and three huge bas reliefs at the top, and an elegant curved moderne corner, but an art noueveau interior, with banisters and motifs on the doors of the boxes which could have come from Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I thought it was designed in the 1920s or even the 1930s. It turns out to have been built in 1913, and it's where Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had its notorious premiere.

Inside there's a dome filled with pastoral scenes of dancing and singing, packed with frankly sexy nudes and a series of inscriptions about music, opera etc which I couldn't entirely follow running round the bottom. There are four roundels dedicated to the orchestra, the choir, the sonata and the organ (the theatre has one, its pipes visible above and beside the proscenium).

Front of house space is generous though the bars undermanned and over-priced. The acoustic is lively (as evidence when someone dropped something during a quiet moment in Act 1). There is no opera pit as such, merely a simple step down from the front of the stalls.

The Arts Desk review of the show (with which I largely agree, including the slightly catty remarks about de Niese) is here:


Thursday, 1 July 2010


30/6/10, Barbican

Brazilian dance. Missed it: had to work. D said it was a cracker: the best and most exciting modern dance she'd seen for a long time, with accessible music (Barber, Handel, modern techno), sensible costumes, never fewer than three dancers on time at any one time, very fast-paced, clever use of props (especially a long trestle table). It was called Cruel and there was a threesome with knives which had enormous impact.