Tuesday, 17 April 2012


17/4/12, ENO at Hampstead
17/4/12, Hampstead
1 hr 5 mins, no interval. Smoking alert (clay pipe: now there's a first, and with real tobacco, judging by the smell that wafted up to the circle). It was the first night so the Hampstead foyer was heaving with a very different crowd from its normal North London bourgeois, including ENO's new chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette, two former general directors (Dennis Marks and Nicholas Payne), assorted critics and opera buffs.

A bizarre evening: memorable, but for mostly the wrong reasons. How sad that something done with such commitment should prove so utterly unengaging and alienating. But apparently it's a modern classic. This was A's take, emailed within 90 minutes of the curtain:

Well, we are reeling from what can only be described as a tour de force of performance and a health & safety nightmare. Described as a chamber musical for three performers, additional singers and a percussion section, in this production, it certainly is that and more.

Thankfully, it was short (but not short enough, say I). I admit, I didn't do my homework on this (we booked the tickets, obviously in a moment of madness, particularly as we managed to double book ourselves; I blame the Lears' good hosting on the afternoon we did the bookings). The set is an actor/performer's nightmare of health & safety issues: pools of water, some deeper than others but the actors/singers were all sploshing around on stage. I also pity stage management on this show, who will also be doing laundry because of the water, never mind the full-body 'baptisms' and/or jumpings-in which happened at least five times in the space of 80min.

So, there we were, in the 'circle' at Hampstead. They took out several rows of seats in order to accommodate a chamber orchestra. Hampstead made it three-sided seating; I felt very sorry for anyone on the far sides, left & right as they would only have seen performers' backs. The music was squeeky-gate and is an up-date from 1979 when squeeky-gate stuff was in its heyday, I guess. Having said that, the orchestra was wonderful and some of the music was magic.

However, what was on stage...well, we didn't fall asleep because I think we (at least I) wondered where it could possibly go next. There is a scene where part of a church wall, lying flat to begin with, is raised on a hoist (above pools of water), on which is played a duet at a parlous angle for the two performers. And then the female heroine starts running around and jumping in restoration dress. She visibly slipped and nearly lost her wig. He slipped when he attempted to run up the thing again later in the scene. And why Jakob didn't set himself alight when he covered himself and the candle-lit lamp, I do not know.

I didn't bother to buy a programme on this one; our tickets were expensive enough in the first place. Having looked at Hampstead's site, apparently all seats are £45. There are six performances left. Run and buy a ticket (not).
Jakob Lenz really existed: an 18thC poet and friend of Goethe who went mad and sought help from a pioneering psychologist and Lutheran pastor called Oberlin, who told the story to Georg Buchner, who wrote it down. Wolfgang Rihm set it to music in the 1970s. This was its first English-language production in the UK.

The lead was sung by Andrew Shore: we've seen him as Mime and in ENO's Elixir of Love among other things and he's a great actor, let alone singer, but this must have been a challenge. After so many dunkings he'll have pneumonia by the end of the run. There were two other singing parts, for Oberlin (a bass) and a foppish friend of Lenz's (a tenor) plus a small chorus of peasants, two children and two non-speaking, non-singing parts: an elegant woman who might be Lenz's muse or a former lover, and a little girl who is presumably the muse as a child, though one can't be sure: at one point Lenz baptises the little girl in one of the pools; later the woman, in her scanties (presumably the costs of laundering daily her magnificently starched 18thC dress horrified the management), drowns the little girl in the same pool (Lenz tries unsuccessfully to resurrect her... the woman kisses her and she wakes). The elegant woman was played by Suzy Cooper -- last seen in the York panto!

Though the soloists' enunciation was admirably clear, they had to fight the highly percussive and often noisy orchestra and many of the words went west, so one had only a hazy notion of what was going on. The music was deliberately alienating and though it had its moments of calm it was a struggle to listen to. I'm not sure (as so often with modern operas) what it added to a straight dramatisation. It was also frustrating not knowing what was in Rihm's text and what was the director Sam Brown's interpolation. Presumably the mute muse was in the text. And the little girl. But does the text specify the splashy fens of Annemarie Wood's muddy, reedy set? They were, as A says, a potential deathtrap and the cast will be lucky not to sustain a broken leg during the run.

One fundamental problem (not limited to operas in general or this one in particular) is that it's hard to sympathise with someone in the throes of madness if one's not first seen them sane.

From my seat in the circle I had a first-class view of the percussionist who, as so often in modern music, had loads to do (percussionists must love this kind of stuff). He was often more entertaining than the onstage antics.

Overnight reviews here. I especially like Michael Church's summary in the Indie:

There is much to like in what results. Shore’s heroic performance is ably complemented by those of Suzy Cooper, Richard Roberts and Jonathan Best; the chorus of ‘voices’ and children is artfully deployed; under Alex Ingram’s direction, Rihm’s score comes to life with remarkable vividness. But that is all there is to it: Lenz starts off mad and stays mad, period. There is no narrative, no psychological surprise, no dramatic tension of any kind; just wall-to-wall hysteria.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012


11/4/12, NFT1, BFI Southbank

1 hour 55 mins. A beautiful new pristine print. Smoking alert (they do it all the time; all the prison camp interiors are wreathed in smoke; but then that's the way it was).

A film I've been reading about for almost 40 years: Jean Renoir's celebrated anti-war film (without a battle in sight). Now finally seen, and a thoroughly satisfactory experience it was, if not quite one that justifies the five stars lavished on it by some critics.

One of its problems, of course, is that it pioneered a whole genre, the PoW movie, and many of the things that must have seemed startling and original in 1937 now look like cliches, recycled time and again in everything from The Great Escape to Colditz: the escape tunnel beneath the floorboards, the spoil deposited in the prisoners' garden; the camp (in both senses) concert; the officers-only, "escape-proof" castle on a hill; the unlikely bonding between the working class Marechal and the Jewish Rosenthal as they escape into the Alps and freedom.

It's great strength is that for the most part it's not sentimental. It's about class solidarity in the face of a common enemy, but Jean Gabon's beefy Marechal (wearing Renoir's old uniform: he was himself a pilot until shot down in 1915) concedes he'll never really be pals with the aristocratic de Boildieu. Meanwhile de Boildieu's common cause with the equally upper-crust von Rauffenstein (played by Eric von Stroheim) is suffused with the knowledge that their kind -- along with their way of making war in which fighting honourably counts for as much as winning -- are on the way out. And von R's aristocratic hauteur is kept fuelled with frequent shots of schnapps.

The great illusion is of course that war is bearable: it isn't. It's absurd and destructive and pointless, which is something on which both the French prisoners and their sympathetically-portrayed German captors (mostly middle-aged or elderly) clearly both agree. But there are other illusions. Honour is probably one. Interracial harmony may be another: everyone gets on famously weith Rosenthal, who takes transparent delight in his family's wealth and success, and keeps everyone's morale up by sharing his generous food parcels. But when our heroes bunk up with a black soldier they simply ignore him.

Not everything works. The musical hall performer Julien Carette gurns and gavottes unconvincingly. And there are plenty of unanswered questions, like how the mud-spattered British officers newly-captured somewhere like the Somme have their tennis rackets with them. But we were on balance admiring.

John Birt sat in solitary splendour in the row immediately in front of us.


10/4/12, National (Cottesloe)

2 hrs 40 mins. Smoking alert (Danny Sapani a token, unenthusiastic puff or two; Ray Emmett Brown as Mavis's beau Prince smoking enthusiastically and for real, which is most unusual).

A masterclass in close-up naturalistic acting from a wonderful ensemble cast in a fine play written in 1953 by Errol John (actor and playwright -- once played Othello, as well as starring in the 1960 ITV presentation of this play) about Trinidad in 1947. The troops are returning from the war, and young Ephraim, trolleybus driver with prospects of promotion to inspector, has secretly saved the money for a passage to Liverpool because he's desperate to get out of Trinidad's dead-end society. (In England, of course, he'll most likely end up driving a bus, with the prospect of promotion to inspector, but that's another story).

Around him a strongly-drawn collection of characters living in rooms around the "yard" owned by miserly Mr Mack, who owns the local cafe. There's innocent young Rosa, pregnant with Ephraim's child (though he doesn't know it); hardworking, poverty-stricken Mrs Adams, mother not only to her scholarship girl daughter Esther but the entire yard, with her wastrel husband Charlie, once a cricketer who played for Trinidad; Mavis the hooker upstairs; Prince, her ridiculously dandyish beau. They may sound like types but the play was sufficiently well-written and (especially) well-performed to go well beyond stereotype. These were convincing, sympathetic and rounded people.

Danny Sapani too old for Ephraim (though John himself was 36 when he played him on TV) but a wonderful actor with great physical presence (we saw him in The Overwhelming and as Macbeth in Out of Joint's promenade production at Wilton's); Martina Laird brilliant as Mrs Adams; Tahirah Sharif ("playing age 18" according to Casting Call) utterly convincing as a 10 year old; Jude Akuwudike as Charlie; Jade Anouka (whose credits include Juliet and Ophelia) as Rosa; Burt Caesar as Mr Mack; Jenny Jules as Mavis (we saw her play the lead in Ruined at the Almeida, and in white-face with Lucian Msamati in Death and the King's Horseman).

Played in traverse with a wonderfully naturalistic set by Soutra Gilmour: the Adams's and Rosa's rooms as one end; the stairs to Mavis's at the other; beneath the stairs the bed in Ephraim's room -- all a miracle of compression. Directed by Michael Buffong. Plaudits all round.

It ended sadly after a rather melodramatic confrontation between the departing Ephraim and Mrs Adams, berating him and begging him to stay. There was some plot -- who stole the $70 from Mr Mack's cafe? -- but it emerged from a convincingly portrayed milieu with lots of patois and nicely-observed interactions. (Some of the accents slipped now and again.)

Because it came out of the British and Caribbean traditions there was no American-style need for a happy ending (unlike Ruined). All in all we liked it a lot.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


7/4/12, ROH, Covent Garden

2 hrs 45 mins. A thoroughly satisfactory evening. Purists may cavil: we just suspended our critical faculties and had a good old wallow.

The promised Russian soprano as Gilda was substituted by an English singer, Lucy Crowe. We got an email some time ago telling us that; even so the Russian sang at the first night of this revival. Maybe her agent had double-booked her. Ms Crowe a more than adequate replacement, though she seemed from the Upper Amphitheatre a slightly stolid stage presence. And her two duets with Dimitri Platanias as her dad were genuinely ravishing. He's pretty stolid as well, no great actor, but fine voice, helped by the fact that David McVicar's production and Tanya McCallin's costume design equip him when at court with a black leather ensemble, two-horned cap, hump and pair of walking sticks that make him look like a scuttling insect.

The Duke was sung by a look-at-me Italian tenor called Vittorio Grigolo (who bounded on at the curtain call to beckon down the adulation of the House: the expected extra cheer failed to materialise). One review suggests he looks a bit too clean-cut for a cynical, serial seducer and I wouldn't disagree.

Among the walk-ons we were pleased to spot three of the Jette Parker Young Artistes we heard at Highgate the other week: ZhengZhong Zhou, Pablo Bemsch and Susana Gaspar.

The costumes were in the intended period: 16th century; the set was abstract but included some decidedly 20th century chain-link fencing. Built on the revolve it presented a smooth sloping face during the court scenes with an opening off centre from which thrust a ramp with steps down and a throne for the Duke in front; then it turned to reveal a cramped two-storey interior with a rather precipitous staircase which served as both Gilda's apartment and Sparafucile's tavern (the revolve at the end of scene one was interminable, in silence, dissipating much of the tension and excitement: does it really take Rigoletto that long to manage the costume change from black leather beetle to brownb mufti?). During the abduction scene it half-turned so it was end-on to the audience.

The first scene a proper orgy, with two or three topless actresses running round in extravagantly tailored gowns, draping themselves round the Duke, the courtiers and each other, and another wrapped in a carpet who finds herself stripped naked and (presumably) raped by an equally naked male courtier -- this I assume is Count Monterone's debauched daughter, who comes back in a nightie during act two, lurking disconsolately and a trifle distractingly in the shadows. With so much happening on stage and the surtitles to read it proved tough to focus. And those who've seen it before report that it's all grown a bit flaccid (hah!) since the original production a decade ago.

John Eliot Gardner conducted briskly. A bit outside his normal repertoire, I'd have thought.

This is only the third time we've seen Rigoletto, and the first two were decades ago when we twice saw the Jonathan Miller mafia production at ENO. Gratifying, therefore, to find it can be done differently.

It also has wonderful music, great tunes, etc etc. But the truth is the operatic apparatus often gets in the way of the emotion in works like this which have a pretence of naturalism. It's fun to go, but it's not half as involving as the stage version, Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'Amuse, on which the opera's based and which we saw (as The King's Play) in a mesmerising production (with real rain) many years ago at the Olivier with Ken Stott: now that really did make the heart bleed.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


4/4/12, Almeida

2 hrs. A heart-warming, old-fashioned play saved from sentimentality by its honest depiction of its characters' frailties and, in this production, by fine performances from Samantha Spiro (last seen in the Court's Chicken Soup with Barley) as Filumena, the mistress who schemes to get her lover of 27 years to marry her to legitimise her three sons, only one of which is his (and she won't say which), and Clive Wood (last seen as the gay squadron leader in Flare Path) as Don Domenico, the ageing cock of the walk.

The set by Robert Jones a courtyard bathed in rich Neapolitan light in a posh house with balconies and flowers and all other appurtenances (which a couple of hints in the text suggested was originally meant to be the living room of an apartment). But the warm glow is deliberately at odds with some of the content, notably the monologues from Filumena and her old maid, Rosalio, about their past lives spent in the extreme poverty of the Naples slums. The object of the satire is male vanity, and especially sexual vanity, which I suppose helps it to have lasted.

Don Domenico has treated the illiterate Filumena appallingly, deserting her for months at a time (she was working in "the house on the hill" when he first met her), failing to marry her when his wife died, carrying on with an attractive young nurse when he thinks she's dying; she repays him by telling him that she has, unbeknown to him, three illegitimate sons she's set up in business as a plumber, a tailor and a clerk-with-ambitions-to-become-a-writer with money she's stolen from him down the years. When he throws her out before the interval, after discovering she tricked him into marriage by pretending she was dying, she tells him one of the three is his. Which is how when we came back from the interval we found them some months later on the brink of marriage, with the Don trying to work out which is most like him (it turns out none of them can sing, unlike him; and they're all womanisers, like him) and to get all three to call him "father".

Though premiered in 1946 there's not a mention of the war or Fascism: part of its appeal at the time must have been that it takes place in a Neapolitan never-never land; its continuing appeal lies in the robustness of its plotting -- plenty of twists in the first half to keep you guessing -- and its nods towards the reality of Neapolitan poverty.

The house only half full, and some of the laughs were slow in coming. Maybe the Almeida's regular audience thought it didn't sound arty or challenging enough. Like most plays that have lasted, though, it turned out to have strong theatrical legs.


2/4/12, Barbican.

3.5 hours, including interval (the first act was an hour and 45 minutes, which is pushing it). A Simon McBurney Complicite classic with all the wit and technology and spectacular capacity to conjure much out of very little that we've come to expect, but perhaps more impressive than moving. By all accounts Bulgakov's sprawling novel is tough to adapt, but Mao, whom we travelled back with and is the only person I've ever met who's actually read it, said so far as she could remember this was a faithful version.

Eleven actors walk on to a line of chairs across the back of the wide, flat stage. The back wall is blank but will be used for videos and projections throughout, including Google maps-style birds-eye views of locations in the story -- in and around Moscow, in the Holy Land. The chairs are deployed throughout as props, along with a bed, a small glass cubicle big enough for a single person, a wall-with-door which serves to indicate a room; much of the rest of the staging is done with light: pools of light, bars of light which travel across the stage. There are video cameras which occasionally illuminate an action or focus on a performer (the result projected on the back wall); there are also cameras in the ceiling pointing vertically down which occasionally give us a picture of actors lying in square pools of light flat on their backs.

Everyone has head mics.

In the first scene, after some preliminaries which I forget, we see a line of chairs
cubicle (tram, phone box, soft drink)
pilate and yeshua (v thin)
crucifixion scene
woland, truly spooky
lit committee satire
hard to see the master's appeal
angus wright
moscow variety theatre
iphones, lights on us

Sunday, 1 April 2012


31/3/12, Tricycle

2 x 2.5 hours of short plays about the nuclear bomb, interspersed with verbatim quotations, to be seen over two nights or (as we did) in an afternoon and an evening. A disappointment after the really excellent Great Game at this address last year, which was in three parts but otherwise followed a similar format.

That was about using history and the resources of the drama to illuminate a pressing, live contemporary political issue. This was about what ought to be an equally pressing contemporary issue but is in fact one that has slipped off the political radar in recent years (though the Iranian attempts to develop a bomb have reversed that lately).

That may have been one explanation for a curiously underpowered feel to the whole exercise. But the principal problem was that too many of these short plays tackled the issue head on, dramatising the arguments around the bomb but not doing enough to turn them into real drama. It was like sitting through an illustrated politics lecture. Worst offender was the second playlet, in which the central section was a discussion between Attlee, Bevan, a field marshal and a scientist (William Penney, who'd flown in a second plane at Nagasaki to observe the effects of the explosion) about whether Britain should begin development of a bomb of her own. Interesting as history: Bevan's "naked into the conference chamber line was there", the field marshal was agin development because it rendered conventional warfare irrelevant, Penney -- I think it was this character in this play -- argued that once the scientific genie is out of the bottle, it's impossible to put it back in. But too literal, too underpowered dramatically to work as theatre.

There were exceptions: the last play of the afternoon, set in Ukraine some time in the early 1990s, was a comedy which took as its starting point all those worries about the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists and imagined how that might happen. Cue two hillbilly brothers who'd got their hands on one of these things and were selling it off piecemeal for scrap; their sexually rapacious mother; and a drunken ex-Red Army doctor who claimed to have a contact (called "Dennis") in the Chechen terrorist fraternity. The missile sat at the back of the stage as the lads took potshots at empty beer cans perched on it. The Ukrainians all spoke with Ulster accents. It was quite funny and quite clever, though it didn't get the laughs it deserved, perhaps because by that stage the audience had lost its enthusiasm.

The second part was better. A full house helped. So did the fact that, while part one was largely a history lesson, part two took a series of contemporary questions and explored them. But mainly the afternoon plays looked at the issue in an imaginatively-satisfying, sideways fashion. An exception was a pretty literal but entertainingly-staged sketch (little more than that, really) involving two senior North Korean generals discussing a US offer of $1.5 billion to "buy out" the North Korean nuclear arms programme, and wondering how the new Supreme Leader would react (and what his father, the Dear Leader, would have done).

One play centred on the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist by Israeli agents who attached a bomb to his car in central Tehran and then sped off on a motorbike. In scene one a Mossad agent travelled to a hotel room in Switzerland to meet his sister, also a scientist and married to a Swiss banker, who had been the Iranian's lover and had slipped him a USB stick which (unknown to her) contained a disabling virus which infected the Iranian nuclear programme's computer network. (The siblings had been born Jews in Iran, before emigrating to Israel). In the second scene we see the professor's widow in a Tehran hotel room immediately after the assassination with her brother, a member of the secret police, who reveals her husband's infidelity with a Jew and Israeli citizen and threatens her. A pleasing symmetry which illuminated issues of loyalty (to family, country, religion) and the paranoia which has led both Israel and Iran to seek to develop a bomb.

The highlight of the evening was by David Grieg, in which a newly-elected Prime Minister is urged by an anonymous functionary ("John. From Arrangements") to write the Letter of Last Resort to be opened by a nuclear submarine captain in the event of a devastating and disabling nuclear strike which has destroyed government, civilian life and military command and control in the UK. (How will they know? There will be no Radio 4. The audience liked that notion and so did Grieg, who milked the gag three or four times.) The letter commands the captain to retaliate. Or not. Retaliation is meaningless and probably a war crime: condemning 10 or 20 million civilians to death to no military purpose, purely as an act of revenge. Not to retaliate renders the whole notion of nuclear deterrence and mutually-assured destruction a nonsense. This was as talky as any of the plays, as dramatically inert (in the sense that it consisted of no more than two people sitting in a room) and as literal; yet it worked the best, probably because Grieg is such a witty, subtle writer. (Dr T thought it played too readily to the audiences prejudices, by which I think she meant there were too many easy gags about Radio 4, and I saw what she meant; but then the audience for an event like this is always likely to be stuffed with R4 listeners, and the whole five hours was pandering to its audiences prejudices since no-one not alarmed by nuclear weapons was likely to come.)

I learnt a fair amount; I reacquainted myself with many of the arguments around the Bomb; I gained insight into the motives of those countries beyond the original cold war participants (China, India, Israel, Iran) who've gone to considerable lengths to develop nuclear weapons; I enjoyed some of the doublespeak this area of political, scientific and military endeavour seems to generate. But I could probably have got all of that from a well-written magazine article in a fraction of the time.

M/f when I can get into the front room where I left the programme when we came home last night (currently inaccessible because of a sleeping visitor brought home in the wee small hours by the boy's girlfriend)