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)

Sunday, 22 August 2010


21/8/10, Royal Albert Hall

2hrs 15 mins. Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Wagner's Tannhauser overture, Mahler's Ruckert-Lieder and Beethoven's Third Symphony (the Eroica).

The Wagner stirring at the start but lacked the frisson at the end. Perhaps he took it a bit too slowly. Perhaps the brass (three trombones, three trumpets, tuba) just weren't loud enough. But wonderful stuff nonetheless. I always feel guilty liking Wagner: it's like listening to chocolate ice cream. He makes it all too easy...

The singer in the Mahler was baritone Simon Keenlyside, in white tie like the band (M Nezet-Seguin, on the other hand, was in a suit with a black T-shirt). We didn't know these songs and foolishly didn't buy a programme until the interval so we were a trifle at sea. Settings of poems by Friederich Ruckert (b 1788), whose portrait in the programme (shoulder length dark curls, open-collared white shirt, firm chin, dark eyes under darker brows) positively shrieks "Romantic poet". He also wrote the Kindertotenlieder.

Five songs, not written as a sequence and in one case not even orchestrated by Mahler himself, who left just a piano setting. In the order we heard them the first two were broadly positive: one is about the fragrance of lime, the other, "Blicke mir nick in die Lieder" or "Look not at my songs", is a coy little number about not looking over the poet's shoulder until he's finished. The best was the third, "Um mitternach", which was also the longest and for the most part scored just for the voice and the woodwind, except that at the end the brass come in (the only one of the songs in which they do), until a coda for the strings in which the whole thing fades beautifully away to a silence. Just before it did some philistine coughed loudly.

Both the Wagner and the Mahler started very quietly and Nezet-Seguin gave us plenty of time to settle. The Beethoven starts with a pair of emphatic notes from virtually the entire orchestra and they were playing the moment he was on the podium and before the applause fell away (D was leaning over to me and had just started to whisper something). Commendable urgency, but it couldn't keep me awake. It's been a very tiring couple of weeks. It's familiar stuff, very splendid, and must have been staggering when first composed, but it's 50 minutes long and I did feel, especially in the first movement, that he goes on a bit. The audience of course loved it.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


19/8/10, Royal Albert Hall

3 hrs. The BBC Scottish Symphony with Martyn Brabbins and a Mozart overture, Liszt piano concerto, Sheherazade, then after the interview an unlistenable new work by James Dillon and Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony. I was knackered and it was a long concert, so the second half was a bit of a blur.

The Mozart (Der Schauspieldirektor) was short, polite and inoffensive. The Liszt was played by Boris Giltburg, replacing Boris Berezovsky for "contractual reasons", whatever that means (a row about the fee? double booking?). It's a serious work but for the first two movements piano and orchestra could have been playing separate pieces. The pianist delivers himself of a great tract of noisy, dramatic, flamboyant, romantic angst; the orchestra plays a few notes; the soloist starts up again while the orchestra rests its instruments and watches. There's more integration, more dialogue in the third movement, but overall the impression was unsatisfactory. Yet the Prommers loved the soloist, who was brought back for a (lengthy) encore.

Sherehezade is long too. I'd forgotten how long, even though it's almost tediously familiar thanks to an Ann Rachlin tape we used to play in the car when the kids were young. But it is marvellous, colourful stuff with great tunes and orchestral effects (and hearing a work in live performance with whoch you're already familiar is usually more a help than a hindrance because it enables you to spot differences in interpretation and emphasis). Half the orchestra seemed to be employed as soloists at one point or another. The "Sheherezade" passages for solo violin and harp and the woodwind solos were particularly attractive. And it boasted six percussionists. It also had a third trumpeter who sat mute throughout the first two movements and only raised his instrument briefly in the third, much to our relief (D nudged me to make sure I didn't miss it: he'd become a positive distraction).

The Dillon (called La Navette) was a long drone involving at times the whole orchestra, with the usual cliches: sudden brief eruptions from the brass; little twiddly bits, equally sudden, equally arbitrary, from the woodwind; every conceivable type of percussion.

The Tchaikovsky (which we didn't know) was enjoyable and accessible and culminated in a typical Tchaikobsky march which he flogged to death, typically, repeating it over and over until it threatened to become a pain.


16/8/10, National (Cottesloe)

Missed it: had to stay at home with a guest. D said it had an amazing set, a traverse-style stage snaking through the audience with an additional playing area at either end. Good use of audio-visual, strong environmental message up until about two-thirds of the way through and had everyone captive until we got to the fantasy, futuristic, post-death scene which went on too long and lost the audience. Good performances all round, including Geoffrey Streatfeild. She says she'd rather have seen it than not. Script by Mike Bartlett.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


15/8/10, Royal Albert Hall

London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski. The Musorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov Night on the Bare Mountain; Shostakovich Violin Concerto No1 with Julia Fischer; Scrabin's Reverie (very short, very slight); Prokofiev's Symphony No 3.

The Musorgsky was thrilling. Lots of orchestral colour. The Shostakovich was spectacular, exciting, impassioned, tortured; the third movement ends with a cadenza which seemed to go on for ever. Ms Fischer went down an absolute storm with the Prommers and was brought back for an encore.

The Prokofiev not really to my taste (I do try, really I do, but it always sounds like under-developed film music). And my concentration goes late in the evening.


14/8/10, Cadogan Hall (Proms)

A double concert, 1 hr 10 mins starting at 11.30, and then another 1 hr 10 mins at 1.30. We had a sandwich in Sloane Square in G and J in between. All the Brandenburgs played by the English Baroque Soloists with/under John Eliot Gardner, who actually conducted only three of the six, sitting out the others at the side of the stage with the Radio 3 announcer Violet Elizabeth Bott, and entertaining both audiences (on the radio and in the hall) with his witty apercus in between each concerto.

I learnt a lot about music which is (some of it, at any rate) almost tediously familiar. They weren't played in order, presumably because there's no evidence of the order in which they were written, only the order in the manuscript in which they were found in 1849. Bach presented them to a member of an obscure branch of the Hohenzollerns, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, although they hadn't been written for him and his household lacked the musicians to play them.

We started with No 1, which begins with two horns (up in the Cadogan Hall balcony) playing what sounds like completely different music to the rest of the band: an extraordinarily discordant row. After the opening allegro they came down into the body of the kirk and played much more harmoniously in a subsequent movement. I thought it was just me, so was relieved to hear Eliot Gardiner remark on how discordant the opening is.

Then we had No 6, for strings alone (but no violins), followed by No 4, which JEG returned to conduct.

The second concert started with No 3, which has just two movements separated by a cadenza which Bach didn't write but (if memory serves) the principal violinist played at length.

No 5 is extraordinary, according to JEG, because it's arguably the first "modern" keyboard concerto in which the harpsichord goes beyond its conventional continuo role at the start of the piece to become a true solo instrument in the middle... and then lapsing back to continuo in the final movement. It was very effective -- and all the more so because we'd been primed to look out for it.

We ended with No 2 conducted by JEG, the only one of the six to feature a trumpet, and very stirring it is too.

I enjoyed this greatly, possible because it was the middle of the day and I was wide awake. Should we have more concerts in the mornings?

Friday, 13 August 2010


12/8/10, Shakespeare's Globe

A wonderful play, written by Howard Brenton especially for the Globe and a beautifully judged mix of history, politics, religion, humour (sometimes bawdy and with filthy language) and backchat with the audience. Shakespeare would have loved it; indeed, he might have been pleased to have written it. All it lacked was the poetry, but modern writers don't do poetry, and Brenton compensated by filching lines from elsewhere (including Shakespeare) to make the whole thing sing. Even the claque of whooping American tourists couldn't spoil it, indeed just made it all the more entertaining.

This was the tale of Anne Boleyn, familiar from Shakespeare and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, complete with the closet protestant Thomas Cromwell (is there actually any historical evidence for that or is it all surmise?), the fat cardinal Wolsey and the rest; but it was also the tale of James I and VI and the process which led to the Authorised Version of the Bible, a tale which bracketed the Boleyn story and which may have been Brenton's starting point (a newspaper interview in January with the director, John Dove, a veteran new to us with a long career in Scotland and London, mentioned that his next project was a Brenton play about the King James Bible), and which meant that the second half was played around the supine body of a drunken James.

It's hard to know why the hairs on your neck stand up and your eyes prickle on some occasions and not on others, but they did tonight.

Miranda Raison's Anne had something to do with it. She came on at the start, beautiful and mischievous in a white shift and carrying a bag, asking: "Do you want to see it?" And we of course chorused "Yes" without quite knowing quite what it was. And it turned out to be her severed head.

But she was touching in her initial innocence, the love story with Henry was convincing, Wolsey was absurd in his ranting (my one reservation is that Colin Hurley as Wolsey and James Garnon as an epileptic James went way, way over the top, but the audience loved it and it didn't spoil one's enjoyment of the play's finer points) and she was suitably pitiable when Cromwell (a wonderful performance by John Dougall) the arch-revolutionary, her friend and co-conspirator, turned on her when it suited the revolution's purposes (she having failed to produce a male heir). One of the best lines was her riposte to one of the men (Wolsey, Cromwell) who accused her of witchcraft and wondered what she was that Katherine wasn't (answer: "fertile").

There was a lot of politics, a lot of religion and a lot of religion-as-politics. Some of the eye-prickling moments came when Anne, clandestinely meeting the protestant William Tyndale, joined in singing Martin Luther's hymn; and another when she and Cromwell recited Luther's evening prayer.

I liked too the scenes in which King James tackled the Anglican and Puritan tendencies in the church, seeking to reconcile them. He was a convincing practitioner of realpolitik, for all his epilepsy and foul mouth and tourette's-like behaviour and explicit carrying on with Buckingham. His preference for the Anglican interpretation of the Greek testament ("church" not "congregation": a congregation decide things for themselves, and where does that leave kings and their authority?) showed he was shrewd.

At the start James, arriving in London, is shown Anne's coronation dress ("there may be some interesting stains" he shrieks at one point: the Americans loved that) and finds in the chest in which it was stored a hidden compartment with her copies of Tyndale's translation of the New Testament and his The Obedience of a Christian Man (about the role of kings). At the beginning of part two he puts the dress on and dances provocatively with Buckingham. A clever combination of low comedy, almost burlesque, with quite meaty and challenging political stuff.

The cast was virtually the same as for Henry VIII, though Wolsey, Cromwell and Henry were all played by different actors (interestingly, we thought Henry in both was played by the same actor: we were wrong).

We ran into Brenton afterwards and I complimented him. He said he'd written for the space with some trepidation: but in my judgement he pitched it absolutely right.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


10/08/10, Donmar

Heinreich von Kleist's piece about the conflict between duty and the individual, written at the height of early 19th century Romanticism... and controversially given a New Ending in this Donmar production.

The Prince of Homburg is the adopted son of the Elector of Brandenburg. It's the 1670s, and they are fighting the invading Swedes. At the Battle of Fehrbellin the Prince disobeys the Elector's direct orders not to attack with his cavalry until the Swedish army has been surrounded and cut off. The prince was distracted by love for his cousin at the pre-battle briefing. The battle is a victory, but not the total one the Elector had hoped for. He court martials the prince. The only possible sentence is death. It all shapes up as a fascinating clash between 18th century Enlightment ideas of order, rules and structure on the one hand, and the 19th century Romantic belief in the autonomy of the individual on the other.

So far so good. Ian McDiarmid suitably scary as the calculating martinet of an Elector; Siobhan Redmond extremely impressive as the Electress; Chris Cox an appealing prince; intelligent direction by Jonathan Munby who also did Life is a Dream (another play about a tyrannical monarch and imprisoned prince).

But then the play goes off the rails a little. There's a scene in which the prince leaves his prison on parole to beg for his stepmother's intervention and, having passed the grave opened for him on the way, finds his bravery deserting him and says he'll do anything to live. This scene proved so problematic for the 19th century that it was usually cut (the play wasn't produced until after von Kleist's death in any case) and you can see why. He dumps his girlfriend in order to live (she's promised to the Swedish king in a diplomatic marriage alliance). She tells him he's behaving badly. By the interval he's lost our sympathy and so has virtually everyone else in the play (the Elector because, having made his point, he refuses to do what everyone expects and pardon the boy, or at least commute the sentence).

An historical descendant of the Elector, of course, was the King of Prussia who forced his homosexual son, later Frederick the Great, as a boy to watch the execution of his lover, so rigidity bordering on mania clearly ran in the family.

Things pick up in the second half, with a lot of military coming and going, letters written and received, the girlfriend developing a quite unexpected capacity for decisive action, the Elector having to face down a mutiny from his officers and the prince finding himself once more when the Elector offers him a reprieve provided he can say the Elector acted wrongly (he can't, of course). There's a very fine scene indeed between the Elector and one of his veteran officers in which they debate what matters more in battle: victory or obedience to orders.

In von Kleist's original the prince is pardoned, having presumably learnt his lesson. The historical Prince of Homburg went on to live a long life. But in this version the Prince is executed as the Elector looks on from a balcony at the back of the stage and tries and fails to get his silent officers to join him in the triple "hail" we have come to know as the electorate's official military salute. The reference to the ultimate rise of Nazism, a bastardised child of Prussian militarism, is clear.

I'd forgotten (despite having read the reviews) until reading up on von Kleist and the play later that the ending had been changed. This one worked well dramatically and didn't bother me at the time: it gave the play a contempoary resonance it would otherwise have lacked. But how does this differ from 18th century rewritings and bowdlerisations of Shakespeare about which we're always so sniffy?


8/8/10, Lamarsh Church

A fund-raiser for the church and a quite unexpected delight. A five-man a capella group plus a reader (a distinguished former World Service announcer, who clambered in stately fashion into the pulpit) in a programme of Love Songs and readings. The latter included Laurie Lee (that cider with Rosie scene), Shakespeare sonnets, Philip Larkin and a wonderful judgement passed in the 19th century on a man who'd behaved badly in the matter of a failing marriage and who was roundly lectured on what he should have done to rid himself of his harridan of a wife (a petition to the House of Lords came into it, I think), before being told that, having failed to take advantage of the (hugely expensive) remedies the law allowed him he was clearly guilty as charged and woud be sentenced to... a day in jail.

The music I can remember less clearly except for the first piece, a modern composition of relentless seriousness, which left the heart sinking. Perhaps the delight was all the greater when it became clear that the rest of the afternoon was going to be infinitely wittier, more tuneful and more pleasurable.


2/8/10, Sidmouth Folk Festival (Ham Marquee)

Kerfuffle are a four-piece: two brothers on fiddle and bass guitar (though the bassist is soon to leave to get "a proper job", we were told), a guitarist, and a diminutive girl called Hannah who sang, played accordion and clog-danced... spectacularly. Not sure I've ever seen clog-dancing. As performed here, amplified, by a woman in a bright orange dress and halterneck top, it was thrilling, and rather overshadowed the rest of their set, of which I remember little.

Blue Murder are a folk super-group: Martin Carthy, his wife Norma Waterson, their daughter Eliza (six months pregnant), their niece Marie Waterson (daughter of Norma's sister Lal) plus Coope, Boyes and Simpson, which is why we were there. (Norma's brother Mike was supposed to be there too but was evidently ill, and Norma has trouble with her hips to judge from her crutch and the fact that she sang sitting down.)

The Watersons/Carthys are folk royalty, even though their singing on this evidence is not outstanding (with the exception of Eliza). I think it must have something to do with the fact that they're a family. They manifestly represent The Tradition, of songs handed down the generations and written by ordinary folk (though once you become a professional folk-singer, can the songs you write be classed as such?), and being part of The Tradition is more important than making a pleasing noise. (I'm not qualified to judge their musicianship, though I suspect they're pretty accomplished.)

Coope, Boyes and Simpson on the other hand sing and (especially) harmonise wonderfully. The beauty of the sound they make knocks the Watersons into a cocked hat. They also have a clearer sense of theatre, three men in a line dressed in variations of black, very slick, very tight, whereas Norma and Mike and their clan are a bit all over the place, rambling and backchatting between numbers, forgetting what they're supposed to be doing next, dressed all anyhow.

The combination worked well, though. When all seven sang in (mostly unaccompanied) unison they could be exceptionally moving, especially in Dennis Potter's favourite hymn, "Will there be any stars in my crown?" which brought the hairs on the neck to attention. Otherwise the highlight for me was when Coope, Boyes and Simpson sang two of Mike Waterson's songs about Hull fishing, On the Cold Coast of Iceland and I Saw Three Ships.

Marie Waterson seemed a bit lost: she had an adequate voice for two solos, but she lacked the theatricality of Norma and Eliza, throwing their arms wide and rocking to the music, and she was in a rather old-fashioned grey woollen dress, unlike Norma's gypsy-peasant garb and Eliza's altogether funkier stuff.

Interestingly, neither D nor I can remember any other individual songs from the set.


2/8/10, Sidmouth Folk Festival

Belshazzars Feast are a pair of Pauls, one very shaggy with an accordion who does most of the talking, one clean-shaven and deadpan with a fiddle and occasionally a swannee whistle. Mainstream folk-plus-musical jokes, including snippets of familiar tunes (Mozart, Ode to Joy, Hallelujah Chorus). Witty repartee. Undemanding but most entertaining.

Brass Monkey something of a disappointment: a five-piece embracing two folk greats, Martin Carthy (guitar) and John Kirkpatrick (vocals), formed in the 80s by Carthy and reformed in the 90s. There's also a trombone, a trumpet and a chap playing sax/tambourine/boghran/side drum.

The first couple of numbers were thrilling: folk crossed with German oompah music. But after a time, and despite numerous changes of instrument by the fifth member and some changes of pace, it started to get boring. Some people left (towards the end that may have been because the set was over-running and other performances were due to start elsewhere in town).

The band were without their regular trumpet player, stranded in Jamaica, but his replacement seemed more than competent, so it probably wasn't that. Martin Carthy isn't really a team player: the others were in dark shirts, he was in a brightly coloured tie-dyed T-shirt, hanging loose.

And where Kirkpatrick has a good voice, Carthy's is a CofE hymn-singer's drone.


31/7/10, Glyndebourne

The night of the bats. There was one flying round the auditorium when we entered which remained throughout the first act, flitting occasionally across the lights and adding considerably to the atmosphere. And when we got back to our (rather grand) B & B there was another flitting around in the hallway and landing which the landlady's son finally got rid of with the aid of a gigantic butterfly net.

The production itself was rather dominated by its set, an extravagant affair of hydraulics and walls (which became sloping playing areas) all turning on the revolve, which caught fire at the end of Act 1. Designed by Paul Brown. Surely, one thought, they cannot take that on tour but apparently they will. Though undeniably impressive it often gave the singers difficulty and limited movement.

Directed by Jonathan Kent, who chose to reimagine the Commendatore as a kind of B movie zombie (which worked well enough) but otherwise played this rather puzzling piece pretty straight.

The setting was 1960s Italy, Fellini-style. Luca Pisaroni was an engaging comic Leporello, played as a rather cringing character (though some of his music suggests a rather more self-confident character), a seedy paparazzo-style figure with a Polaroid camera (cf the version we saw at BAC a year or so ago). Gerald Finley sang his umpteenth Don Giovanni, looking a dead ringer for Marcello Mastroianni. It occurred to me that he doesn't have as much to do as you might expect: Leporello has more stage time.

Kate Royal (sigh) sang Donna Elvira in a belted raincoat: there is something gawkily restrained and rather English about her which suited the slightly loopy Elvira.

Anna Samuil as Donna Anna got the biggest cheers, which made me wonder who the star is meant to be. Donna A and Donna E have one big aria apiece in the second half. Zerlina (Anna Virovlansky) has more to sing and do: she was a sparky little thing in a ghastly blonde wig. Presumably Mozart's original cast included a first-rate omic actress who got the Zerlina-Susannah parts and a couple of stand-and-belters who couldn't act. Masetto (in shiny wedding suit) and Don Ottavio are rather thankless parts.

The plot really is very problematic. It relies on all the women being in two minds, up for it but then again not up for it (or instantly regretting it). Donna Anna's screams at the start in this production are not because Giovanni is raping her but because he's leaving and refuses to stay. Zerlina succumbs (in a nice touch when she and Don G first meet and she is easily seduced her high note comesas he runs his hand up her skirt) and willingly goes off in the party scene (another touch of Fellini, with everyone moving very slowly in a kind of three a.m. torpor) only to cry rape off-stage. It's not clear why.

You're left wondering what on earth all these women actually see in him. And you feel if women were as changeable and unreliable as this plot suggestsm Don G would have come a crashing cropper long, long ago.

At one point the party band (and chorus) went to the back of the circle, invisible from our seats, and created an intriguing stereo effect which was only partly spoilt by the fact that the party itself was very distinctly taking place on stage in front of us, not behind us.

I liked the quote from Figaro, and Leporello's "I know this".

David Hockney was sitting immediately in front of us. Norman Lamont was there with a tall and striking blode. Danielle de Niese was at the dinner but not, so far as I could see, at the show.