Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal, or, Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

The Royal Opera is retiring a few much revived productions these days, with the Schlesinger Rosenkavalier the latest to go. There's always a risk involved and, equally, it's clearly a necessary process. In this case picking Robert Carson, on the basis of recent work that I've seen, was a sound choice for a popular work which needs a revivable production. The Board can breathe easier knowing that his new version is revivable. Whether it has the endurance qualities of Schlesinger's is rather more open to doubt.

Carson has chosen to set the work in 1911, the year of its composition. This is most conspicuous in Act 2 and during the final moments of Act 3, elsewhere it is unobtrusive. Carson's best work comes in his direction of the principals. He draws a nicely judged masculinity from Alice Coote's Octavian which creates a really effective physical contrast between her and the other two women. He has thought, as so many opera directors don't, about the interaction between the leads – on many occasions in those powerful intimate scenes at the ends of Acts 1 and 3 he gives extra point to music and emotion by how he has them move. When the large bed was first lowered in Act 3, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Glyndebourne production, I was not convinced but Carson makes eloquent  use of it later – as the Marschallin stares at it we feel she is looking back to her Act 1 assignation with Octavian, and when Sophie draws Octavian to it for the final duet there's something lovely about it. Carson also seems to be interested in the idea of moments of this opera taking place as some kind of internalised dream. There is textual support for this – and it creates some effective pictures – the Marschallin listening to the Italian tenor at the levee as if to a record and at the same time remembering nights at the opera (it reminded me of The Drowsy Chaperone, a whole show based on a similar conceit), Octavian and Sophie's first duet in Act 2 where Carson contrives to make the whole room fall away.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Love at the National, or, Ultimately Evading the Harder Arguments

In advance of this show I had considerable misgivings. Partly because my run of poor experiences at the National over the last year or so has given me low expectations. Partly because this has garnered considerable critical praise and I've disagreed with similar choruses on several NT offers lately. And partly because the advanced advertising made clear this was an issue play – and I have seen far too many poor plays in that category in recent years. As it turned out, some aspects of this 90 minute one act grew on me. There are some strong performances in the company and at times I was moved, but I found the end less powerful than others and I think this is a show which takes an easier way than might be apparent at first sight.

The setting is a shared flat with communal kitchen/living room and bathroom. Its inhabitants (so far as we are shown) are Nick Holder's Colin looking after his incontinent mother (Anna Calder-Marshall). The mixed race couple: Luke Clarke's unemployed and recently evicted Dean and pregnant Emma (Janet Etuk), plus Dean's two children (if I understood correctly Emma is not their mother and one of several flaws in Alexander Zeldin's script is that it is never established how this situation has arisen or what has happened to their mother). Finally we have two under-written refugees – Hind Swareldahab's Tharwa and Ammar Haj Ahmad's Adnan.

St Joan at the Donmar, or Ineffective Modernisation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 7th January 2017.

The previous time I saw this great play was at the National Theatre in 2007 directed by Marianne Eliot and starring Anne-Marie Duff in the title role. Shortly before I attended this new version a debate arose in my twitter timeline about the appropriateness or otherwise of making comparisons to past productions/performances. I personally think that criticism to be meaningful needs benchmarks. In addition a great production of a work I've seen previously actually usually has the effect of making me forget, while I'm watching it, that I have seen those previous versions (a recent show that achieved this was the Opera North Billy Budd). But to return to St Joan. That 2007 NT production was outstanding. Josie Rourke's new version doesn't run it close, mainly because of a badly judged attempt at modernisation.

Recently I've felt that rather a lot of directors appear haunted by the Iraq war (Ivo van Hove's recent Barbican Shakespeare mash-up and Robert Icke's ineffective Oresteia at the Almeida spring to mind). This seems to result in a desire to make plays which weren't specifically dealing with that conflict overtly speak to it – the results in my experience are rarely effective. Rourke's St Joan falls into this trap. Robert Jones's set (bar the beginning and the end) consists of an enormous glass conference table and pastel covered chairs on wheels, backed by video display screens. The table is further placed on a revolve, and proceeds to do so for almost the entirety of the show – this device adds nothing. As on other occasions with this kind of narrowing of focus of geographically expansive work, the show loses a sense of kingdoms being at stake – not only because the world is so circumscribed but more significantly because rooms and costuming are so nondescript we could be pretty much anywhere in the modern world. No doubt that is the point, but it falls down when the script is so very clear about when and where we are supposed to be. Putting only Joan in more medievalish garb only further confuses the issue. The table also imprisons the actors – it hampers the ability to create effective tension in positioning and interaction. On occasion Rourke goes even further to deliberately hamper this – most notably in the bizarre decision to have Joan's meeting with the Dauphin staged as a video conference call.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Highs and Lows of 2016

Edited in early January to reflect two events I inexplicably managed to miss out of the original...

It's that time of year again...


Best Opera: The lacklustre recent form of London's two main houses continued. That said an honourable mention for the fine revival of Tannhauser at the Royal Opera. Outside London Opera North delivered a powerful, moving Billy Budd. But the palm goes to a show I reviewed first time round, this year getting its second outing: Glyndebourne's outstanding Cunning Little Vixen.

Worst Opera: Plenty of dreary but not irredeemably awful opera this year. Honourable mention for the Aix Cosi at Edinburgh (hopeless production but musically solid).

Best Play: Despite the National having a generally dismal year it did produce two outstanding shows which tie for this award: Les Blancs and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Honourable mentions for Mr Foote's Other Leg, the RSC Cymbeline and the hilarious Harlequinade revival.

Worst Play: Exceptional level of competition for this for the second year running. The National appears now to be trying to compete with the Almeida for how many indifferent to awful shows it can put on in succession. Collectively their candidates for this award in 2016 included Oil, Boy, They Drink It in the Congo, Sunset at the Villa Thalia and the sadly disappointing revivals of Waste and As You Like It. Edinburgh had a second disappointing theatre year under alleged theatre man Fergus Linehan. In the end it comes down to the endurance test that was van Hove's Shakespeare mash up Kings of War (Barbican) and the painful Anything That Gives Off Light at Edinburgh - the latter just edges it.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Billy Budd at Opera North, or, The Power of Cumulative Effects

To me, Billy Budd is one of the great operas and I've been lucky to see some outstanding performances including the Albery ENO production and the more recent Grandage production at Glyndebourne. But I am always grateful for an opportunity to see it again, for repeated viewings so far have only confirmed its power to me. This strong evening at Opera North was not an exception.

This Budd is directed by Orpha Phelan. I had previously seen a semi-staging of hers at the Barbican  but nothing else. She takes a straightforward approach with a curving upper railed balcony for the officers, space for the men underneath that, an open area in front which with small changes to lighting and furnishings doubles for the variety of other onboard settings. Finally she encloses the whole in decaying grey walls – the house, or perhaps somewhere else inside Vere's mind where he struggles with his regrets. Visually it isn't as totally satisfying a production as were the Albery and Grandage ones but it still works perfectly well, and, especially in Act Two, Phelan reveals other gifts which I rate exceedingly highly. Firstly, and this was especially apparent from the luxury of the Stalls, she has worked effectively with many of the individual performers to craft detailed characterisations. This is already brought out for Redburn (Peter Savidge) and Flint (Adrian Clarke) in their Act One scene with Vere – their “Don't like the French” duet is masterful. But it builds to new and powerful heights in the trial scene. Here Phelan and her performers really capture the sense of entrapment. Redburn's horror when ordered to preside is palpable, as is the desperation in their final plea to Vere to assist them. Phelan also makes the unusual decision to include a small amount of movement alongside the famous sequence of chords describing Vere informing Budd of the verdict. The cabin (formed by a wall of male bodies) dissolves and a tortured Vere stares upstage where we can just see Budd sitting with his back to us. Then, slowly, he goes over and sits down alongside. To me, it was a simple, powerful piece of movement which complimented, indeed reinforced the music.

Lulu at English National Opera, or, A Dated Shocker

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Saturday 12th November 2016.

I didn't have particularly high hopes in advance of this production. My previous encounter with the work of William Kentridge in Edinburgh did not impress me and a first hearing of operatic Berg (Wozzeck) at the Coliseum a few years ago did not make me want to rush back for more. So I booked for this primarily on the principle that I will see any opera once.

This show does have one strong element. It wasn't finally enough to sustain my interest over the 3 hour and 40 minute running time, but it does deserve high praise – the musical performances. During the first act I was a little doubtful as to whether Brenda Rae as Lulu had the necessary vocal weight – up in the Upper Circle there was a lightness to the voice when it seemed to me the role required more presence. But Rae's vocal performance does strengthen through the evening, there may also have been an issue with the layout of the set in Act One. She sings many of the high lying passages with great beauty – though I did think Mark Wigglesworth could have brought those rare more lyrical moments out more, it isn't all brutality – and in a punishing role her stamina sees her through to the end. She also throws herself fully into the acting side of the role – that that doesn't perhaps make the impression it could is a function either of the work or the production – I remain in doubt as to which. I was surprisingly impressed by both James Morris's Dr Schon and Willard White's Schigolch. The last occasions on which I heard them both I thought the voices were becoming strained and not up to the demands of the roles they were taking. Here this was not a problem. Both were vocally and physically compelling. The Countess Geschwitz is a smallish role for a singer of Sarah Connolly's talents, but her rich mezzo brought welcome vocal variety to the texture and she found, I thought, more in the not always convincing movement of the production than some of the others. Also very fine, as Lulu's other lovers were Michael Colvin's Painter, Nicky Spence's Alwa and David Soar's Athlete. The minor roles were all well taken. In many ways, from a vocal and acting point of view, this was a rich ensemble show of the kind that was once, before the disastrous John Berry era, ENO's calling card. In the pit Mark Wigglesworth draws committed and powerful work from the ENO Orchestra. My one quibble would be that there are some phrases in the text that seemed to me to hint at a greater complexity of character than the production really wanted to get at and that the musical interpretation could have done more to point those up – Lulu's reaction when her first husband dies for example.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Cymbeline at the Barbican, or, Making Magic from Potential Muddle

Regular readers (and twitter followers) may have noticed that I've been suffering a run of poor to indifferent shows. It is therefore a joy to be able to say that this RSC Cymbeline breaks the run, in magical, moving fashion.

As a play Cymbeline is at times like a compendium of Shakespeare devices, characters and plots all thrown together into an occasionally crazy pot. We have battles stepping out of the history plays, feigned deaths akin to Hero or Juliet, recovered heirs as in The Winter's Tale and a darker reusing of the idea of love tokens seen more happily in All's Well. Then there are the abrupt deaths, the sudden changes of tone, and an exposition heavy final scene. It is easy to imagine a less accomplished team coming to grief. That instead the play transcends its limitations is I think a tribute to the way the team trust it. From the outset this show simply asserts belief in this world and its abrupt changes of fortune, and that tone successfully carried me over even the most bumpy textual moments.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Oil at the Almeida, or, “It's Going To Get Worse”

The Almeida under Rupert Goold, like the National under Rufus Norris, has become a venue that I approach pessimistically. Sadly this was another occasion when that pessimism proved all too justified.

This new play by Ella Hickson is, as the title makes obvious, about oil. It starts in Cornwall in the late nineteenth century when a random American turns up to bring kerosene to a squabbling, struggling farming family and ends sometime in the mid 21st century with a Chinese company discovering cold fusion and mining the moon. In between we visit pre-World War One Persia, 1970s London and 2021 Iraq. In theory these disparate locations are bound together by the two central characters of mother May (Anne-Marie Duff) and daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) but there's a problem. You may ask how it is that May, already pregnant in Scene 1, is still alive and looking not much older in Scene 5. The play makes absolutely no attempt to answer this question, or to provide any substitute scenario to explain who Duff and Kettle are playing in different scenes if it is not the same May/Amy. The result, by the time we reached Scenes 4 and 5, was to render the relationship, as far as I was concerned, hopelessly unbelievable.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Amadeus at the National, or, Mysteriously Famous

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Saturday 22nd October 2016. The final preview takes place tonight with the press night tomorrow, Wednesday 26th October 2016.

This was my first encounter with this play (though I knew it by reputation). By the time the three hours was over I was puzzled as to how the work had attained that reputation.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the play, it fictionalises the relationship between Mozart and rival composer Salieri. In theory, it questions whether or not Salieri destroyed Mozart's career and finally murdered him (via the subtitle Salieri gives the piece of “Did I Do It”). Unfortunately, the play has no interest in creating any doubt on this subject. Not only is it clear from very early on that Salieri is bent on destroying him, but one could scarcely miss the processes by which he achieves this. This makes for a lack of dramatic tension. One way round this would have been if the play were to craft leading characters in say a Shakespearean mode so that one is gripped by their mental deliberations even though we are pretty clear what is finally going to happen but, as I'll explain, the play is not very effective in this regard either – or at least its effectiveness was not sufficiently put across in this performance. Pacing is also a problem, the drama moves forward too slowly, and the ending is unsatisfactorily drawn out.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Allegro at Southwark Playhouse, or, Trying to Blaze a Trail

I've always struggled with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Intellectually I'm aware they made a major contribution to the development of musical theatre, but songs like Some Enchanted Evening just don't particularly appeal to me. So I went to this more for completionist and Americanist reasons. It turns out to be a flawed but rather fascinating show. And it has one outstanding number.

The premise of the show is to follow the life of a single man, Joseph Taylor Jr (Garry Tushaw) from his birth in 1905 to the age of 35. Needless to say he makes mistakes, in work and love but in classic musical theatre fashion, it all comes right, a little too pat, in the final scene. I'm sure I'm not the first person to observe a clear lineage between this show and Sondheim's masterpiece Merrily We Roll Along (though the programme note is likely to put this in mind as well with its reminder that Sondheim worked as a 17 year old as a production assistant on the original production). During the early parts of this show I rather longed for Sondheim's greater command of emotional engagement – I found it difficult to get that interested in a baby. But gradually the work does find more depth and as the evening wore on it brought tears to my eyes several times.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Cosi Fan Tutte, or, Shocking? If Only It Were

When I received a warning about explicit content in this show, and learned that refunds were being offered to children, I assumed the staging must be seriously shocking. After all sex, nudity and violence are regular features of International Festival productions (the name Bieto springs to mind). So it was something of a surprise to find that, bar one moment at the very end, there is really nothing shocking about this production at all. Worse, it commits my cardinal sin of being emotionally cold. (As an aside, on a second closer reading of the e-mail in question it appears to me to go into more detail than would seem necessary just for an offer of refunds to "young people" and the thought does occur that the Festival may also have been seeking to stir up controversy in the hope of boosting sales).

Christophe Honoré has set the show in Italian occupied Eritrea during the 1930s. However, if the gramophone record which opens the show did not explicitly name check Mussolini, and the girls (bafflingly) post up his picture later on, this would not have been obvious. The general colonial setting is clearer but problematic, as will be discussed later.

Friday, 26 August 2016

EIF 2016 – The Toad Knew at the King's, or, Not Quite Complete Beguilement

I hoped in advance that this show might be the equivalent of 2015's En avant, marche! or 2014's The War. There are magical moments, but it doesn't quite achieve the absolute power of either of those two shows, particularly in emotional terms.

Visually, Compagnie du Hanneton seems to me to fall into the same category of strongly visual European theatre occupied by such recent Festival visitors as Theatre du Soleil or The War. The set is very striking – a lotus like flower on complicated wires hanging in the air, a water tank, a spiral staircase and, most of all, the stunning toad creation at the end. However, it doesn't have quite the unfolding inventiveness, either in itself or in the performers engagement with it of the work of those two companies.