Friday, 22 October 2010


20/10/10, Young Vic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The music was by Nick Cave.

Ian McKellen was in the audience.


18/10/10, Hampstead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


16/10/10, Barbican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 October 2010


13/10/10, ENO

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

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

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


11/10/10, Donmar

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

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

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

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

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


5/10/10, ENO

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