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.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Richard III at the Lyceum, or, An Endurance Test of Mostly Wearily Familiar Elements

When I arrived at the Lyceum and saw that this show was to run for two and a half hours without an interval my heart sank. The omission of an interval is increasingly common but only occasionally justified - the superb The War at EIF 2014 for example – sadly it was not so in this case. This show is a largely unoriginal endurance test, and is another disappointment in what has been a weak year for International Festival theatre.

The set (designer Jan Pappelbaum) is nondescript. Occasional pieces of furniture appear but the main element is a full length wall with a balcony, a set of stairs, a fireman's pole and various doorways across the back. Additionally, a microphone/camera/harness hangs centre stage. We could be pretty much anywhere and this has a familiar effect in Shakespeare of making it difficult to believe that there is a kingdom at stake. A further effect is that there are an unfortunately obvious number of escape routes at crucial points when there should be none (from Clarence's prison cell for example).

Sunday, 21 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Anything That Gives Off Light, or Sunk by the Script

Picture if you will the following Scene One. A man enters looking as if he is going to announce a cast illness and instead takes up position stage right and shuffles his feet in a pile of brown soil. Small child in audience enquires what he's doing. Man: “I'm recalibrating my Scottishness.” And things pretty much go downhill from this unpromising beginning.

This show follows a familiar, and not noticeably successful, International Festival theatre formula. Buy in a company who've won awards on the Fringe and hope for similar success. The company here is the American group the TEAM, with whom this was my first encounter. In this case, a further element is added, by having them collaborate with the National Theatre of Scotland, whose record at the EIF is uneven. The result is one of the most painfully laboured pieces of theatre it has been my misfortune recently to encounter.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Alan Cumming at the Hub, or, A Very Personal Cabaret

When the full International Festival programme was announced this show stood out as a hot ticket. Alan Cumming is both a very fine singing actor and a performer with remarkable charismatic presence. In the intimate setting of the Hub, it promised to be a memorable experience, and so it proved.

The programme of songs (ranging from Rufus Wainwright via Miley Cyrus to Marra's Mother Glasgow) is structured to a large extent around Cumming's life story – though he does play with the audience towards the end by introducing a Liza Minnelli anecdote which does cause one to wonder whether absolutely everything he's said during the preceding 70 odd minutes is true. There are particularly moving nods to aspects of his complex family history with songs chosen to acknowledge the grandfather who never returned after the Second World War and died playing Russian roulette in Malaya, and his abusive father. But Cumming is also keenly alive to the fact that his audience wants to have a good time – throwing in a Sondheim mash-up, and less niche and quite hilariously a Trojan condom advert.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Daniil Trifonov at the Usher Hall, or, An Evening of Magnificent Pianism

I first became a fan of Liszt's piano music in 2011 when I made a rather insane trip in the middle of my annual Edinburgh visit to hear Louis Lortie play the complete Annees de Pelerinage at the Snape Maltings. It was an unforgettable performance. In recent times though, thanks to regular visits from the talented Daniil Trifonov, Edinburgh has also been lucky enough to hear some superb Liszt. A particular highlight was Trifonov's Queen's Hall recital in 2014 when he gave an outstanding account of the complete Transcendental Etudes. This year he was upgraded to the Usher Hall for a recital of Bach's Chaconne (arranged for piano left hand by Brahms), Liszt's Grandes etudes de Paganini and Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No.1. It proved to be one of the highlights so far of Festival 2016.

The Bach/Brahms opener is in part a striking technical challenge. Closing my eyes it was hard to imagine that the intricate sequences and often rich timbres were being produced with only one hand. Occasionally, individual progressions could feel a little over-laboured, I presume an effect of that technical limitation, but overall the effect became remarkably gripping. Brahms's transcription successfully brings out the range of Bach's dynamic, tonal, speed and chorale like effects and Trifonov captured them all. A fascinating occasional piece.