Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida, or, Waiting in Vain for Revelation

I think I read this play at school, but it has not particularly stuck in my memory (I hadn't for example properly registered that “prick us do we not bleed” etc. is in it). I've only seen it staged once, in an Edinburgh Lyceum production of which I retain no particular memory. This performance convinced me that there are powerful and disturbing elements to the play. Unfortunately it also demonstrated that Rupert Goold as a director lacks the ability to make those elements tell.

My previous encounter with Goold and Shakespeare was his bafflingly over-praised kitchen-set Macbeth. His Merchant has more going for it but is, ultimately, not much more successful. This time Goold has relocated the play to Las Vegas. Or at least he's relocated about half the play there. After the interval, as the play darkens, although the basic set remains exactly the same (minus the slot machines, and with the Almeida's back wall exposed through the gaudy set) it is sadly unclear where we are, with unfortunate results for the play.

While the Vegas setting is being played up, the visuals (blue and gold colouring), the trappings (the aforementioned slot machines and card tables), the extras (Lancelot Gobbo's Elvis and a number of scantily clad women) present plenty of spectacle. The problem is there's insufficient behind it. For example. Antonio plays his opening scene with Bassanio seated at a card table losing chips. Presumably we're meant to link this with a wider narrative of ridiculous gambling – all those enterprises set forth, the insanity of the contract with Shylock. The programme notes, which I read afterwards, comment the play is sometimes seen as Shakespeare's “gay play” and looking back I can sort of see suggestions of this in Goold's reading. But none of it is fully developed, or knitted together into a convincing whole. Even more bizarre is Lorenzo's “abduction” of Jessica in which they are dressed up as the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman and Robin. There's no sense of the sort of mind or life story that either of them would need to come up with this scheme and, beneath that, their relationship is left frustratingly blank – what exactly is the feeling between them, why have they together agreed on this course of action? The result is that later Antonio's plight, and then Lorenzo/Jessica scenes where you feel Goold wants to suggest troubled relations don't pack the punch they ought because those well staged moments are built on such thin foundations. The same problem goes for just about every other character and relationship in the show.

Treasure Island at the National, or The Shallow Comedic Version

Shows often have a moment which encapsulates either everything that's right with them, or everything that's wrong. A recent example was the extraordinary dance sequence in the final act of My Night with Reg. In the National's new adaptation of Treasure Island, the moment comes in Act Two during the fight for the stockade (well I say fight but two bullets is about your lot). Those who've read the book will recall that as he's directing the defence Captain Smollett is hit, but not killed. In this adaptation he dies, sprawled on the front of the Olivier stage. It isn't just the textual liberty, nor the one dimensional nature of the writing of him which makes the moment go for nothing, but the ridiculously overdone chest wound with which make-up and costumes curse him – from Row D of the Stalls it was wholly unconvincing. When death becomes ludicrous in a pirate play you have, I would suggest, got a problem.

Now it is a long time since I read Treasure Island. And maybe I am misremembering it. But my recollection is of something which was very tense and exciting, with a strong sense of threat and convincing violence. Almost from the word go, this adaptation plays it for laughs. If I say there's more chill in the delivery of the Black Spot in Muppet Treasure Island (incidentally a film I love) you'll appreciate that things have gone sadly wrong here. Actually, comparing this to the Muppet version of the story is generally instructive. There's plenty of comedy there too – think of Sam the Eagle's terribly unsafe jolly boat, or Fozzie Bear's hapless Trelawney, or Stadtler and Waldorf saving the film by saving the pig and the frog or...I could go on and on. But the difference is that all their sillinesses are part of much deeper characterisations. There's so much more to them than just the comedic moments – whether it's Bryony Lavery's script or Polly Findley's direction, this staged version fails to make any of its adult characters (with passing but not sustained exceptions for Long John Silver and Ben Gunn) into anything other than shallow butts of jokes. As a result, and distinctly unlike in the original, I never had the slightest doubt that Jim (or Jemima) would win through in the end, and, more seriously, I increasingly felt that the various adults deserved to be killed because they were behaving with such impressive stupidity. Is there now some rule that a children's show should have no convincing adult characters in it – the National might next time like to call to mind His Dark Materials, full of powerful, rounded adult characters – and consider whether this rule needs a rethink. Incidentally, it also should be noted, that the jokes in this are generally not funny enough – leave out the payoff of the Mr Grey running gag and Ben Gunn's double identity and the pickings are regrettably thin.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

In Praise of Recognising and Rectifying a Mistake

Just under a month ago, the Edinburgh International Festival announced new booking arrangements for Festival 2015. First, that the programme would be released in two segments - concerts and recitals on 3rd February and the rest of the programme on 18th March. Second, that booking for the Festival would be similarly split. Here at Where's Runnicles we have long urged a return to earlier publication of information about the Festival programme (as used to occur during the McMaster era), so announcement of such earlier publication was very welcome. However, we were strongly opposed to the proposed staggering of booking which seemed to us to make more difficult rather than simplifying Festival planning (today's announcement suggests we were not alone). Personally as someone who travels some distance to attend the Festival, and whose Festival booking is a complex jigsaw trying to fit in concerts, staged opera, theatre and if I can find space a bit of dance I was especially concerned that the new arrangements would make much harder my kind of Festival. We raised these issues with the Festival via a number of avenues.

The Festival assured us that it was listening to concerns. In today's world, however, one does become cynical about that kind of statement. I was therefore both delighted and surprised to receive Fergus Linehan's announcement this evening that booking arrangements have been revised. Concerts and recitals will still be announced in February, but booking for them will not open until after the full programme has been released on 18th March.

We live in a society where organisations often seem reluctant either to admit they have made a mistake or to take meaningful action to remedy it. It therefore seemed important to publicly thank Fergus Linehan and the International Festival for responding so constructively on this issue. Personally, it's a relief that an obstacle to my Festival planning that I really wasn't looking forward to negotiating has been removed. Instead, I now look forward keenly to finding out what artistic riches the Festival has planned for 2015, and catching as many of them as possible.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Henry IV at the Donmar, or Phyllida Lloyd Doubles Down

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 28th October 2014.

Back at the end of 2012 Phyllida Lloyd staged Julius Caesar at the Donmar with an all female company (review here). Despite the best efforts of Harriet Walter as Brutus it was not a success. The all-female casting had nothing to do with this, the problem was Lloyd's bizarre concept of setting the evening in a women's prison. This evening suggests that Lloyd is not a director to change her mind. We're back for two pretty interminable hours in the same setting, with even less to redeem it than last time round.

My irritation with the whole enterprise began when I received an e-mail on Saturday informing me that the performance was going to take place in a secure premises on Earlham Street and that I must present myself at the Seven Dials Club (42 Earlham Street) in order to be directed to these premises. What this in practice means is that you enter via the back stairs of the Donmar rather than through the normal front of house areas, and are confronted by uniformed FoH staff clearly intended to be impersonating police officers. I was thankful that I had learned from Julius Caesar and purchased a seat in the Circle as the horrible grey plastic chairs which were inflicted on Stalls patrons for that production were once more in evidence. This whole charade is annoying and as far as I was concerned thoroughly ineffectual in terms of persuading me that I was inside a prison. I did not start the show feeling particularly warm towards the enterprise.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

I Due Foscari at the Royal, or, Just Because You Can Do Things Doesn't Mean You Should

When the first attack of premature enthusiasm struck Monday's audience, pretty much as soon as the tenor had finished his first aria, I feared we were in for a long night. And so it proved.

It did not surprise me that this was only the thirteenth performance of I Due Foscari at the Royal Opera House. It is not one of Verdi's masterpieces, though I do think it would be possible to make a more convincing case for it. The major problem with the work is that so little happens. Foscari's son Jacapo is condemned to exile from Venice early in Act 1 but takes until the middle of Act 3 to actually go. It must surely qualify as one of the longest departure scenes in operatic history. To fill in the somewhat lengthy gap between decision and execution Jacopo (Francesco Meli), Mrs Jacopo (Maria Agresta) and Father Jacopo (Placido Domingo) sing a number of arias and ensembles bemoaning the miserable situation in which they find themselves. As a rehearsal for later Verdian struggles between public duty and private feeling it's mildly interesting, as a dramatic narrative in itself it really isn't. This performance didn't have the finest line up of soloists but I suspect even with that it would be a struggle to make of this more than generic Verdi – pleasant to listen to but lacking the punch and depth of Traviata or Don Carlo or Falstaff. As a work it is just all rather unmemorable.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Gypsy at Chichester, or Lara's Turn

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th October 2014. It is not listed as a preview in the brochure but the Press Night does not take place till Tuesday 14th.

Gypsy is a nastier show than one first realises. I came to see this without knowing anything about the narrative and I kept waiting for things to come out right. Of course, this being a show with a Sondheim element to it, I should perhaps know better. That said, there is usually a redemptive element to his principle characters. I found it hard to see one in Momma Rose and thus, while I was moved by things in this show, they did not include her.

For those who don't know it, Gypsy tells the story of Momma Rose's (Imelda Staunton) insatiable attempts to craft a triumphant stage career first for her daughter June (Gemma Sutton) and then for her daughter Louise (Lara Pulver). Given that the final result, or at least one of them, is the appearance of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee it could be said that she succeeds. But the price is a high one.

Strictly speaking Gypsy is a musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim). But there are rather fewer standout numbers than the form usually commands. Many of the musical numbers are intentionally terrible (the stage performances of the troupe until you get to the actual appearance of Gypsy Rose Lee), and some of those intended, I assume, to be of a more standard kind are pretty forgettable (Mr Goldstone for example). My point is, however, that this doesn't matter the way it might because this is really for long sections much more a play with music rather than a standard musical, and as a work in that form it's powerful.

Taken at Midnight at Chichester, or A Well Crafted Visit to Familiar Territory

During the first half of this new play by Mark Hayhurst, I found it difficult not to compare the work to Chichester's most recent visit to Nazi territory – the chilling revival of Brecht's Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. Compared with that play, and despite the moments of brutality, there's a slight feeling of being on safe ground here. Good and bad are fairly clearly delineated, the differences between the three political prisoners imprisoned together feel contrived, and I agree with the critic who regarded it as just a bit too convenient that one of them happened to be carrying a false moustache. None of it is badly done but despite the cast's best efforts I felt uninvolved.

But after the interval one of those curious theatrical twists happened. Not in terms of the play which remains on fairly safe, familiar ground, but in terms of engaging me. Penelope Wilton playing Irmgard Litten has at last been allowed to send books to her imprisoned son. She describes going to see a bookseller and, in a moment which is madness in the new Germany, telling him who the books are destined for. The bookseller refuses to take any money. It's moving because it's such a small, almost pitiful gesture and yet, in a country in which you are no longer free to speak such things take on a strange resonance. The second thing that adds power to Act Two is the realisation that Wilton is not going to win. It's obviously deluded to imagine that she will, but not knowing the story one madly hopes for it. John Light's Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer with whom Wilton is forced to struggle, is convincingly enigmatic and thus fosters the delusion that there may be some sane Nazis. The final meeting between Wilton and Martin Hutson's Litten brutally snatches away any such escape.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

David Watkin leaves the SCO

He plays with such huge commitment. He is a great inspiration to me, especially in Mozart.

I can't claim credit for those words, instead they belong to the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras, but I thoroughly endorse them and am greatly saddened to learn today that David Watkin, principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is leaving the ensemble.

When Watkin joined the SCO around 10 years ago, Mackerras would have already known him from his time as principal cello of both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia. At the same time. This hints straight away at his versatility: he is equally at home with a period cello as with a modern one. And it doesn't end there: during his tenure we've heard him direct the orchestra from the cello in Mozart; he has performed Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; he has been the soloist for concertos and Bach cello suites; and he has done the double of leading the cellos while also undertaking the continuo during performances of Mozart operas. And that's to say nothing of his recordings with the Eroica Quartet, the most recent of which have been fine discs of Mendelssohn's Octet and a pairing of Debussy and Ravel.

Mackerras and the SCO in action in Mozart's Haffner symphony

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

My Night with Reg at the Donmar, or, Time, the Enemy in All of Us

Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance on Saturday 6th September 2014.

There's a moment towards the end of this play which is breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. Struggling to come to terms with a tragedy, Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) puts on a record called Breakfast Disco and he and John (Julian Ovenden) dance for a few moments as if, by that physical action they can turn back the clock to one moment at university when a bond of friendship between three men was formed. Recapture that joyous carefree moment, escape the pain that they've since suffered. We know and they know that it's impossible, that the heartbreaks characters and audience have been subjected to cannot be undone, but that dance both brave and desperate longs for the world to be otherwise.

It's a moment that's a remarkably long way from where the play starts. At the beginning this is an almost farcical show, as we slowly realise that virtually everyone on stage has been getting off with Daniel's unseen boyfriend, the Reg of the title, without Daniel's knowledge. There's also a touch of the stereotypical at first glance to several of the characters – particularly the flamboyant homosexuality of Daniel, and the obsessive neatness of Jonathan Broadbent's Guy. But one of the clevernesses of Elyot's writing is that even in the often farcical first act there's a care to give human depth to the stereotypes. You think you know these types, the play seems to say, but you don't know these particular people and I shall make you know them.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Delusion of the Fury, or, The Return of the Brilliant, Unclassifiable musikFabrik

The German ensemble musikFabrik were first seen at the International Festival last year with a tribute to Frank Zappa. It was one of the highlights of the programme. So I was delighted that Jonathan Mills made sure to invite them back immediately, this time with this bizarre but fabulous piece of music theatre. It was great to see a more youthful audience than usual at an International Festival performance, and a fuller Stalls overall at the King's, and there is food for thought for the Festival about timing of such performances and advertising, marketing and flyering which if such a performance had taken place earlier in the three weeks could have been used to encourage this element in the audience to try something more mainstream in the programme.

But to get back to Delusion of the Fury itself. It is a piece by the twentieth century American maverick Harry Partch. Partch, as the programme makes clear, was very much a loner who rejected just about all of the classical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – though I actually did not find his musical world as challenging to engage with as I thought in advance could be the case. In carving out his own distinctive path one of his major actions was to design his own instruments with a heap of bizarre names (ranging from the Adapted Viola to the Blo-Boy). One of the most remarkable achievements of this show is the work of Thomas Meixner (predominantly) in building new versions of these instruments (based on the only extant full set now in New Jersey which for preservation  reasons can no longer be used for performances). The result is an absolute visual feast. Some of these are outwardly familiar – the two organlike creations that stood at the front corners of the stage. Others, like the set of glass lampshades at the back, or the rows of what look like up-ended coloured bottles, or the giant bellows are very unfamiliar. The members of musikFabrik showcase their impressive versatility, moving about amongst their orchestra with grace and agility – one of the biggest pleasures of the performance is the simple joy of watching these remarkable creations being played. It is certainly some way away, and pleasurably so, from what can sometimes be the rather buttoned up environment of the concert hall.

Friday, 29 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Mariinsky's Les Troyens, or, Failing to Really Catch Fire

In advance of this performance my hopes were for another evening of the intensity of the same company's 2011 Die Frau ohne Schatten where a superb production and Gergiev's driven account of the score offset vocal weaknesses. But it was not to be. There were good things about this performance, but too many problems for it to qualify as a vintage evening.

As in 2011 the production is cast from the depth of the company. Unfortunately, most of them just aren't sufficiently suited to the roles to really bring them off. The finest solo performance for me was Alexey Markov's Chorebe who showed a vocal flexibility coupled to real presence which others lacked (though some of the responsibility here is clearly the director's). Although the match with Mlada Khudoley's Cassandre was not perfect, and I thought Gergiev didn't quite have the last ounce of drive in “Quitte nous des ce soir” their duet as a whole was one of the most satisfying portions of the evening. Elsewhere Khudoley was capable of powerful moments but lacked the richness in the lower register the part really needs, and as with others, there were issues with the direction. Ekaterina Semenchuk's Didon was generally also of a high standard. She has a thrilling intensity in her lower voice which packs a real punch and was capable of rising to the necessary heights elsewhere. But she did disappear under the orchestra in the softer moments and tenderness, which the part does sometimes need, especially in the great love duet, is not really her thing. Finally, and most disappointingly, among the principals we had Sergey Semishkur's Enee. He was anonymous in his Act Two encounter with Hector's ghost. By Act Five it was clear he'd been saving himself and there he could at least do the high notes, but they were barked rather than ringing and he was often not very pleasant to listen to. Like others tenderness was not something he was really capable of, contributing to the flatness of the love duet. Ultimately, he really doesn't have the heft or the flexibility for the role. Among the supporting parts the best performances were Yevgeny Akhmedov's Hylas and Ekaterina Krapivina's Anna (though the latter did not erase the memory of Hanna Hipp's marvellous performance at the Royal Opera).

Friday, 22 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The James Plays, or Of Theatre and Politics

I've hesitated a great deal about whether to publish my thoughts about this trilogy of plays because I haven't found it possible to review them without reference to my personal feelings about the independence referendum. I have felt at times in the last few months that being an Englishman who now lives down south again I'm not supposed to have feelings about that referendum, but I do, and I found it impossible to keep those feelings from affecting my reaction to parts of these plays, though I also think that these plays commit other theatrical sins which would have annoyed me regardless of the opionions they ultimately seemed to me to be trying to advance.

These plays aim to "bring[s] to life" the historical eras of James I, II and III of Scotland. The programme note and publicity are coy about the extent to which it is intended that this examination should have a resonance with respect to the current debate but by the end of the evening it seemed to me that all pretence was abandoned. During the first two plays it is also difficult to avoid comparison with Shakespeare's history plays, though an interview with Rona Munro in the programme pleads that we should. Perhaps it would be more possible to do this if the settings were not so RSC reminiscent, or if the pre-performance publicity did not make the comparison so unavoidable. In the first two plays that comparison is often unfavorable for reasons we'll come back to, the third play focuses almost exclusively on the women of the royal household, is thus the most successful in escaping the Shakespearean shadow, but suffers from other shortcomings.