Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Common at the National, or, Perhaps They Could Try Playing It For Laughs?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th June 2017. The press night took place last night (Tues 6th June 2017).

On paper this new commission had promise. I loved D C Moore's The Swan, staged a few years back in the Paintframe, and Anne-Marie Duff is a very fine actress. Sadly, that promise is not fulfilled.

The principle problem with this show is Moore's text. It is both elaborately over-written and plagued by mangling of word order – one spends a fair bit of time trying to work out what people are actually saying. It rarely achieves naturalness in delivery, despite some of the acting talent involved. Quite often it comes across as just plain silly (did nobody query the name Eggy Tom during the production process?). In itself, the text, much of the time, simply fails to work as dramatic language.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Angels in America at the National, or, Hopefully Not Elliott's Farewell

After a run of uneven to poor shows it's a pleasure to be able to report that finally the National has a hit with this outstanding revival of Tony Kushner's epic.

Kushner's play is an often heartbreaking exploration primarily of the experience of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America but also of the rich complexity of the gay community. It's also a terrible reminder of a world in which it was often far harder than it now is to be open about one's sexual identity. The play begins as a comparatively realist saga of a number of protagonists – the closeted Republican lawyer Roy M Cohn (Nathan Lane), the Pitts – a Mormon couple (Denise Gough and Russell Tovey), and a gay couple – Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and Louis Ironson (James McArdle). But there are already blurred lines between the imagined and the real. These increase in the second part when Prior receives a visitation from Amanda Lawrence's Angel that eventually leads us to a despairing, death-longing Heaven. Part Two could occasionally have done with a little judicious trimming, but ultimately I forgave the occasional flabbiness because the play is able to laugh at itself, strikes at prejudice with an undiminished power, and, often, brought tears to my eyes. One can't of course really know what it must have been like to see this when it was originally performed, especially if you had direct experience of that world and the epidemic, but watching this revival does offer powerful glimpses.

La Traviata at Glyndebourne, or, Making the Familiar Fresh

Note: This is a review of the performance on Sunday 28th May 2017.

Doing a rough calculation after this performance I reckon that I must have seen at least six different productions of this work in my opera going life. As the first opera I remember really connecting with it's close to my heart. But the last production I saw was the dismal ENO red curtain effort and, had it been solely up to me, I doubt I would have gone to this Glyndebourne run. Fortunately, a regular fixture in my summer calendar now is a trip with my partner and old friends now in East Sussex to Glyndebourne. This year our friends proposed seeing La Traviata. Thank goodness that they did. For this is a show that, for me, wiped the slate clean. I felt I was seeing this familiar work with a powerful freshness. On several occasions, it brought tears to my eyes.

Tom Cairns directs both thoughtfully and subtly. The sets are spare – a curved wall to the left, a smaller wall partially enclosing a bedroom space to the right, the bed itself and occasional other furnishings. There's just enough hint of gardens, open skies in Act 2 Scene 1, and otherwise we are in enclosed, often oppressive spaces. Cairns adds pointed dumbshow during the preludes – Violetta emerging into a circle of predatory men at the very start, preparing wearily to leave for Flora's party, lying asleep at the beginning of Act 3 while Annina (Eliza Safjan) weeps. On each occasion these scenes added intensity to the drama.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera, or, A Revival That Falls a Little Short

This is one of those works I always try to catch when performed. To me, it is one of the most satisfying music dramas in the repertoire. This revival gradually finds electricity but the search is often a bit laboured.

Aficionados will know that there are multiple versions of the score. The Royal Opera does at least include a version of the opening Fontainebleau Act, but persists with a crucial omission (as it has done on every occasion I've seen this work performed there). The opening chorus of distressed French peasants adds a crucial layer to the drama of Act 1, fleshing out Elizabeth's motivations for accepting Philip II's hand. The House should really catch up with other British companies and include it.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar, or, Mistakenly Dispensing with Subtlety

My previous encounter with this play was at Chichester in 2012 in a stunning production by Jonathan Church featuring a chilling, compelling central performance by Henry Goodman. So this new staging at the Donmar was up against very tough competition. Unfortunately, it falls some way short.

Almost from the moment of arrival this is an in your face show. A cast member confronted me at the ticket check to wish me an enjoyable evening, programmes are wrapped in brown paper (this is the second novelty programme in recent months – at least less bulky than the ridiculous hospital notes folder at the dreadful NT Pacifist's Guide – I do hope this isn't going to become a thing). The Stalls with their cabaret set up clearly aim to embed the audience in the action, up in the Circle performers are soon appearing to issue instructions. The result, as far as I was concerned, was that this show and I got off on the wrong foot. I don't take kindly to being ordered to participate like that, indeed my immediate reaction is to get my back up and resist.

Monday, 8 May 2017

The Ferryman at the Royal Court, or, There Is No Escape

The fundamental mood of this gripping piece of theatre is established in the first scene as a fearful Catholic priest, Father Horrigan (a fine, understated piece of work by Gerard Horan) is threatened by representatives of the IRA. Lighter, indeed often very funny, moments follow over the following three hours but that threat never goes away. My gaze periodically drifted to the door at the back, expecting doom to enter through it and, in due time, inescapably, it comes.

Jez Butterworth's new play at the Royal Court is, as should already be clear, a tale of a Northern Ireland imprisoned in a cycle of hate, violence, revenge. Butterworth explores this through an extended Irish Catholic farming family. To begin with, we may deceive ourselves that this family is managing to stand aside from the events of 1981 – alluded to, at first subtly, via Thatcher's voice on a radio. Slowly, inexorably, they are ensnared, one by one. Trapped in my seat, I kept wanting them to choose some other path but this is a play that offers essentially no redemption or escape for any of them. Among a plethora of striking scenes in that process, I would mention Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney) boasting about his recent IRA activities and, slowly, fatally, corrupting others, and the poisonous rage Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molloy) has built on one event decades before.

Obsession at the Barbican, or, Unengaging and Self-Indulgent

Note: This is a belated review of the matinee on Saturday 29th April 2017.

This was, I think, my third Ivo van Hove directed show. I remain very unconvinced of his alleged brilliance as a director. This isn't as annoying as his Shakespeare mash up Kings of War but it is slow, dull and gimmicky.

The show is, apparently, based on a film by Luchino Visconti. Not having seen the film, I have no idea how closely the scripts compare but if they are very similar I can only assume that the film being in Italian masked the cliched nature of the dialogue. Certainly the text confers few plaudits on either adaptor Jan Peter Gerrits or English translator Simon Stephens. The story is a familiar love triangle – woman married to older man falls for passing younger heart throb who eventually murders husband, is consumed by guilt and everything ends unhappily. To make this material work you need persistent high tension between the characters and a sense of pace driving everybody towards the successive disasters. For reasons that were never clear to me, van Hove moves things forward at the speed of a snail, leaving me longing to shout at the ensemble to get on with it. Minimal tension is created at any point.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Limehouse at the Donmar, or, Yes, This Is How It Might Have Been

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Wednesday 12th April 2017.

My hopes were high for this show after Steve Waters's powerful Temple at the same venue in 2015. I was not disappointed. This is an outstanding play, superbly performed: politically charged, emotionally moving, and posing us difficult questions.

The drama focuses on the hours prior to the Gang of Four's famous Limehouse Declaration founding the SDP. David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill), and his wife Debbie (Nathalie Armin), Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett), Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) and Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi) gather at Owen's house to argue, by turns bitterly, ambitiously, idealistically, and with anguish about political futures – their own and the country's.

The Royal Opera Season 2017-18, or A Doubtful Legacy

Note: You can find the full listings for the 2017-18 Royal Opera House season here.

The 2017-18 Royal Opera House season bears strong marks of departing artistic director Kasper Holten. If his farewell production, a dismal Die Meistersinger, saw him, as some suggested and I'm inclined to agree, shaking his fist at an under appreciative London public, this season reminds us of the broader legacy he leaves behind. It is, overall, not an encouraging one.

Starting first with the pick of the new productions which for me only arrives in March with Krzysztok Warlikowski's take on Janacek's From the House of the Dead. As a director he will be new to me, and I am slightly uneasy about someone who thinks the director's task is "to inject life into the structures imposed by the score and ossified conventions" (quoted in a fuller profile here) which suggests a distrust of the form which makes me uneasy. This new staging will also be up against stiff competition in Opera North's recent fine production, but it's great news that Janacek finally returns to the House after too long an absence, and Warlikowski's operatic work has been well received elsewhere, so I hope for the best. The conductor, Teodor Currentzis will also be new to me, but there are some fine singers in the ensemble – most notably Johan Reuter and Nicky Spence.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Twelfth Night at the National, or, Played Too Much For Laughs

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Tuesday 11th April 2017.

This is a production that finds its groove after the interval. Director Simon Godwin at that point seems to realise that this is not a pure comedy. The melancholy and uneasiness which exist throughout are allowed to properly emerge and moments of real power result. But the effect, with one notable exception, is less than it should be because it doesn't emerge from a sufficiently complete reading of the piece.

Quite where Godwin's Illyria is never comes into focus. Elements of the new (a buzzer entry to Olivia's house, motor vehicles) and old (swords for the duel) are juxtaposed. My partner identified various references to current popular culture which passed me by. The show gets away with this on the whole, but I think a more concrete sense of place could have added depth.

Friday, 24 March 2017

EIF 2017 – The Opera and Theatre Programme, or, Don't Let the Volume Deceive You

After taking a couple of years off (once through busyness and last year because we were pretty annoyed with the Festival) our annual commentary on the Opera and Theatre programme returns...

Opera

After some comparatively lean years, the 2017 edition of the festival presents nine operas. The devil, however, is in the detail.

Let us start with the positives. After their stunning Nozze di Figaro in Linehan's first year, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer return with a semi-staging of Don Giovanni. This is a revival of a production first staged in Budapest in 2010 and in New York in 2011 (warmly reviewed here and here and less so here). Laura Aiken, evidently a standout in New York, reprises her Donna Anna, and I look forward to hearing Christopher Maltman as the Don. The 2015 Figaro in Edinburgh was one of my finest operatic experiences of recent years. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Royal, or, A Near Complete Removal of Feeling

I've been privileged to see some exceptional productions of this work, which is very dear to me, in recent years, of which the outstanding Glyndebourne production by David McVicar still stands out. The Royal Opera's previous production, by Graham Vick, was also pretty strong. This replacement is another dismal effort from departing Artistic Director Kasper Holten which left me unmoved and, in what should be one of the most emotionally moving works in the repertoire, increasingly alienated and fed up. I wouldn't put it past Holten for that to have been intentional – there are certainly distinct elements of contempt for work and viewer lurking in this show.

Each prelude is played with the curtain down – one of the few moments in the show when the music is allowed centre stage. Once it goes up on Act 1, the oddities start. We are in a classically, for modern opera stagings, geographically confused building. The main element is a central staircase leading up to a door. To the viewer's left the opening chorale is in rehearsal watched by Sachs (if you're thinking that usually he doesn't appear until rather later in Act 1 you would be quite correct). Nearby Eva is hovering. This causes two fairly rapid problems. I accept that the sequence when Eva keeps forgetting things so she can prolong a conversation with Walther is not the easiest thing to stage convincingly but Holten doesn't even try. She stands a few feet from a table on which the objects are resting – needless to say it's daft that Magdalene is sent that small distance to fetch them, and equally that this is supposed to grant space for the lovers meeting. The second problem is that, having put Sachs on stage in defiance of the text, Holten seems to have no idea why he has done so. He (Sachs) hovers about ineffectively for a bit and then wanders off – now one might suppose that a man as concerned for Eva as the text will later bear out that he is (and this production sometimes accepts), might want to hang around and observe the new man on the scene – but no.