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.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (West End), or, A Visit with Our Worst Selves

Directors and writers often try to shock. But it's rare in my experience to encounter theatre which is truly shocking or unsettling. This is a such a play. It does it not with the kind of cheap shots of nudity and violence I've seen so often but with a dissection, through words and silence, of some of our worst capacities as human beings. Partnering this text with the superb production and ensemble seen here makes for an enormously powerful, if sometimes hard to watch, piece of theatre.

Edward Albee's play takes place in a small New England college town. The quartet of characters are an older history professor George (Conleth Hill) and his wife Martha (Imelda Staunton), daughter of the college President, and an ambitious young newly arrived biology professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots). At the beginning we're given the impression that George and Martha are your fairly standard, bickering, long-married couple, though already here the barbs being traded are very sharp. They've returned from a faculty party but, just as George is relaxing, Martha drops the first bombshell – for reasons that are never entirely explained Nick and Honey have been invited to continue the evening with them. The stage is set.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Lost Without Words at the National, or, Yes, We Have Him

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th March 2017.

In advance I had no expectations about this show. Indeed, on paper it was the kind of piece that seemed likely to annoy me – signs of possible gimmickry, no script – though I have enjoyed improv on other occasions. But it turns out to be a gem.

The premise is to take a group of experienced performers in their 70s and 80s who have never previously done improv and have them do so (at the performance I was at the line up featured Georgine Anderson, Caroline Blakiston, Anna Calder-Marshall, Lynn Farleigh and Tim Preece). They are provided with occasional guidance by directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. The resulting scenes range from an ensemble family group, brilliantly transported by Anna Calder-Marshall to a failing farm, to a lovely solo by Tim Preece's bus driver who wishes he'd been a musician (and sounded at times as if he was recalling one of Peter Cook's monologues in Beyond the Fringe).

Thursday, 9 March 2017

She Loves Me at the Menier, or, I'd Call Again If I Could

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 4th March 2017.

The previous occasion I saw this show, at Chichester, I enjoyed it but it didn't especially stick in my mind (apart from the Act 2 number Where's My Shoe). So when this revival was announced, I was a little hesitant about booking. Thank goodness I did. This is a fabulous revival in every sense, and sent me out into the street grinning from ear to ear.

The show by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (music) tells the story of the love trials of the staff of a perfume shop in Budapest. At the centre are Mark Umbers's Georg and Scarlett Strallen's Amalia. They have been writing love letters to anonymous correspondents they've never met, whom they know in each case only as Dear Friend. The astute among you will doubtless have spotted the plot. There's also a second, more tempestuous, romance between Katherine Kingsley's Ilona and Dominic Tighe's Kodaly. There are occasional darker moments, but overall this is a lovely, frothy, what I think of as perhaps slightly old fashioned musical comedy. I treasure this type of musical, and what I particularly loved about this show is everybody involved evidently treasures it too. They don't try to make it more than it is, but they treat with love everything it is. The results are rich.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Winter's Tale at ENO, or, Sadly Insufficiently Dramatic

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 3rd March 2017.

In advance I had high hopes for this new opera. I previously heard Ryan Wigglesworth's Echo and Narcissus at the Aldeburgh Festival, a dramatic cantata with real drama, emotional punch and superb word setting. I hoped for the same here since the source work, in theory, provides so much to work with. Sadly, despite excellent committed performances, it was not to be.

The best aspect of the evening comes from the work of the performers on stage and in the pit. ENO has assembled a very strong line up of familiar faces for this premiere and they give the work everything. I particularly enjoyed Sophie Bevan's Hermione, Samantha Price's Perdita and Neal Davies (doubling effectively as Antigonus and the Shepherd) but there isn't a weak link. The ENO Chorus are musically strong, though not always well enough directed. In the pit the ENO Orchestra under the composer is on fine form, particularly in the many exposed solo passages, though I did think he wasn't always sufficiently careful about the balance between pit and stage.

Friday, 3 March 2017

My Country at the National, or, A Limited Form of Theatre

Note: This is a review of the third performance on Thursday 2nd March 2017. No press night is listed in the NT brochure.

I haven't missed a main stage NT production since 2011. It was for that reason alone that I booked for this show. The thought of having to relive the EU referendum as theatre did not remotely attract me. Nor did the prospect of another issue play which, in my recent experience, tends to produce one sided lectures. To my considerable surprise, this show does have things to recommend it, but in the end it is limited in scope and I'm not convinced of the value of the exercise in this form.

I did hate the opening in which Penny Layden's Britannia insists on explaining both the show and the presence of the audience. I've seen this kind of device countless times and I'm sick of it. Just do the play and let the audience react as they will. If it's a good show we'll listen, but you will get nowhere, at least with me, by ordering me to do so – indeed you will have a precisely opposite effect.

Hamlet at the Almeida, or, Overly Ambiguous

In advance of this show I was not optimistic. A 3hr 45min run time did not inspire confidence especially after the same director's overlong and unconvincing Oresteia. I have not generally been convinced by Robert Icke's work, and the Almeida's recent form has been poor. Fortunately, there are some marvellous things in this production but for me, finally, it was unsatisfying.

The production itself is rather simpler than some of Icke's recent efforts. We are in modern times – this produces the occasional jarring effect between elements of text and setting. The guns are a mistake, as is nearly always the case in Shakespeare, for the simple reason that they can rarely be fired – it is telling that Icke has to revert to swords for the final fight, and the television news broadcasts are a familiar and indifferent device.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Beware of Pity at the Barbican, or, Technically Impressive (if Familiar) but Emotionally Cold

Note: A belated review of the performance on Sunday 12th February 2017

My past experiences with those involved in this production have been mixed. I thought Complicite's The Master and Margarita was remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Simon McBurney's The Encounter, and I was not impressed by the Schaubuhne Berlin's Richard III (touring alongside this show and featuring some of the same cast). As I seem to be saying depressingly often these days other critics, and social media opinion, have largely raved about this one but it left me cold.

As a staging it reminded me strongly of The Encounter. Although some scenes are partially staged (usually in lighted space centre stage) and there is some use of props and the wearily familiar projections around the sides and to the back, far too much of this show consists of people delivering text into onstage microphones. As a radio play this would work better, as theatre, for me, it had an alienating effect which the show never transcended. A similar problem bedevils the adaptation (by McBurney and colleagues). I haven't read the book, but other reviews suggest that the adaptors have maintained the narrative style – wherein the older Hofmiller recalls the experience of his younger self. There are two issues here. First, because the narration is constantly telling you how people feel and what to think about things there is little room for the viewer to use his or her own imagination – like far too much theatre at the moment there is a lecturing element. But secondly, and more seriously, on too many occasions the narration drags on (there is also not enough variety of delivery) with insufficient visual accompaniment. On a radio, where you have to imagine the scene from the words this might work quite well – on a stage cluttered with actors sitting at their microphones there is a constant unconvincing divorce between text and visuals.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Hedda Gabler at the National, or, “Why are you talking like this?”

I'll begin by admitting to three possible biases. Firstly, I've been unimpressed by the last two van Hove shows I've seen (Kings of War at the Barbican, Lazarus at King's Cross). Secondly, I am currently generally dissatisfied with the National Theatre which under the Norris administration is, in my view, falling short too often of the standards it should attain. Thirdly, despite many attempts I have never really managed to get on with Ibsen. It may be that one or some combination of all of those three issues and not the flaws of this particular show explain why it failed to wow me.

Ivo van Hove and his set designer Jan Versweyveld set events in one large, unfurnished room. I like to have an aisle seat and, in advance, I was rather staggered that somebody could have managed to direct in the Lyttelton in such a way that side Stalls have to be sold at restricted view – in fact there was scarcely any visible effect. The problem instead is primarily one of sound. In consequence, I assume, of the bare nature of the playing area, everybody sounds, most of the time, as though they are shouting. This badly undermines the finding of nuance in the drama – because the performers start, or it sounded where I was sitting as if they start, by shouting – as relationships fray there is nowhere vocally for people to go. Related to this is a second problem of emotionless delivery – having seen several of these performers give fine performances in very different roles I assume this to have been at van Hove's direction. It becomes particularly apparent after the interval leading me to increasingly wonder whether van Hove actually thinks any of the events are taking place at all. Van Hove also seems determined to make motivations as clear and in the audience's face as possible. Ruth Wilson's Hedda is so hostile to her husband (and indeed everyone else) from the first scene that, again the play gives itself nowhere dramatically to go.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Love's Labour's Lost/Much Ado About Nothing at the Haymarket, or, An Undeserved Transfer

In advance of these performances I was looking forward to them. I hadn't seen Love's Labour's Lost since Ian Judge's fantastic 1993 RSC production, and Much Ado is very close to my heart. Sadly it proved to be a thoroughly disappointing day featuring uninsightful direction, weak casting and poor verse speaking.

Christopher Luscombe has chosen to set the plays on either side of the First World War. Thus Love's Labour's Lost ends with the four men going off to the front, and Much Ado About Nothing begins with their return. In the case of Love's Labour's Lost this is especially unfortunate for someone like myself who saw Judge's production. In that case, the hint of what is to come was done with great subtlety – simply with a dimming of the lights and the distant sight and sound of the guns in Flanders. Luscombe forces the point, by bringing the quartet of men back on in their uniforms and loses the punch of the moment as a result. In Much Ado, with the exception of Don John and Dogberry there is really no sense of any of the other characters having been through the horrors of the conflict. Dogberry does appear as if he might be both mentally and physically injured but the way in which this is turned into a subject of mockery is frankly disturbing and, I finally felt, inappropriate. As an aside there is something similarly troubling about the way all the lower class characters are afforded regional accents.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Mary Stuart at the Almeida, or, Ultimately Untrusting of the Audience

Note: A belated review of the matinee performance on Saturday 21st January 2017.

Regular readers will know that I have not been a fan of recent work at the Almeida, or of Robert Icke's work as a director. As a result I was not optimistic in advance of this performance. There are some strong aspects to this show, but overall I found it a more mixed experience than many.

Icke chooses to set the work in an unspecified modern time and place. That's to say although the script keeps all the stuff about prisons, England/Scotland etc. there's really nothing in terms of the almost bare circular stage to help to make that concrete. The show gets away with this in the scenes at the English court, it is rather more problematic in Mary's prison where the set completely fails to give any sense of oppression, and in the outdoor meeting at Fotheringhay where there is no assistance to the contrast the script evokes between prison and the outside world. Within this bare environment, Icke's movement direction is bizarrely inconsistent. In the English council scene and the intimate Leicester-Elizabeth encounter which follows it is excellent – adding point to the sparring councillors, sensuality to the duo. But elsewhere Icke is much less sure footed – his decision to have the queens sprawled on the ground for much of the famous encounter is a mistake, as is the choice to have the subsequent debate over the death warrant conducted by the participants charging round in circles while the set simultaneously revolves beneath them – it's distracting and ineffective. Icke also commits the familiar error of leaving a dead body (Mortimer) on stage and clearly visible to the protagonists of the next scene despite the fact that they are clearly not supposed to be able to see it or to know that character is dead, and of not getting people off stage swiftly enough at the start of other's soliloquys which they (those departing) clearly should not hear. On several occasions, I was reminded of the unsuccessful film close-up style Icke employed in his recent indifferent The Red Barn at the National. Here as there, I felt that Icke expects you to watch particular faces and places and therefore pays insufficient care to his onlookers, or to how people get off the stage. The problem is that, unlike in film where the director can give effect to such wishes via what he chooses to film, on stage that power is not the same.