Saturday, 19 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Martin Creed's Words and Music, or, What This Festival Needs is Some Fringe Shows (Because Nobody Else is Offering That)

Martin Creed apparently thinks he's at least a triple threat – artist, singer, writer. Presumably Fergus Linehan agrees and commissioned this show on that basis, alongside the evident desire that the International Festival should have more Fringe-like elements (quite why the International Festival should be moving to do work the Fringe can perfectly well do is a question nobody seems inclined to discuss). I occasionally laughed in this show, one or two songs were enjoyable enough, there are some perceptive remarks (though I think Creed is not so insightful as some seem to imagine). But a great deal of this is tiresome, familiar and wearily self-indulgent.

The show begins with a projection of the following on single slides: “No-A-E-I-O-U-Yes” (it eventually becomes clear this is related to Creed's issues about the slipperiness of words). Then we get a rambling voice over about, amongst other things, sorting socks. Finally Creed hops into the room and proceeds, eventually, to play a number on the electric guitar while standing on one leg. I began to wonder whether I should have brought a larger glass of wine in with me.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

EIF 2017 - The Divide at the King's, or, A Fatal Flaw

After Part 1 of this six hour epic I thought the critics had, perhaps, been a bit harsh. After Part 2 it was clear to me they had not been. This new play by Alan Ayckbourn suffers from a fatal flaw, and it is a flaw which the commissioners should have spotted and required to be rectified before proceeding with this staging.

Ayckbourn's new play is a narrative of a dystopian future version of Salisbury. Owing to an unspecified plague but presumably some form of sexually transmitted disease, men and women are now forced to live separately from each other and, when they meet, they have to go visored (it has to be said the visors don't look particularly effective as disease preventers). All relationships are now same-sex. The country or possibly the world, again the play is vague on the point, is under the rule of the Preacher – though we are early informed that he is in fact dead by this point and has been replaced by a committee – a whole area of this invented world that barely features during the rest of the six hours.

Monday, 14 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Peter Grimes at the Usher Hall, or, Worthy Of A Standing Ovation

When the festival programme was announced I expressed some scepticism about the merits of another performance of this opera, given frequently in the Britten centenary year, though this was mitigated by the many years since the work had been seen in Scotland and the exceptional cast. I also personally wondered whether it could live up to the extraordinary experience of Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh. I was wrong to have doubted on either count. This semi-staged performance found an equivalent emotional punch. It took me in its grip almost from the first notes and held me with an intensity not often experienced in this kind of performance.

Vera Rostin Wexelsen's semi-staging is subtle, but very effective. The cast are in modern dress. The nieces as a result recalled to my mind (I thought maybe I'd seen a comment on this in a review of the Bergen performance but I now can't find it) the prostitutes of the musical London Road (set nearby in Ipswich). The variety of dress amongst the chorus of townsfolk leant extra power to their denunciations – it was all too easy to see them as a baying mob even though in practice they stayed in place in ranks in the Organ Gallery. A few key props are added – the fatal embroidered jumper, ropes, souwester for the apprentice. Mostly, though, the staging depends for its impact on the individual characterisations and interactions. In both cases these had a consistent emotional intensity. A few moments especially stand out in memory – Stuart Skelton (Grimes) a hand persistently going troubled to his temple, Erin Wall's (Ellen Orford) disturbing struggle with the apprentice as she tries to discover what he's hiding, various moments when Christopher Purves's (Balstrode) either does, or does not lay a hand in attempted comfort on Ellen's shoulder. Also worth noting was Grimes's final exit through the auditorium – a subtle hint I felt at our own potential complicity with the village in what has passed.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Meet Me At Dawn at the Traverse, or, The Rest Is…?

After the disappointing Rhinoceros earlier in the week I wasn't especially optimistic about this show. It turns out to be well worth seeing. It moved me in places to the point of bringing tears to my eyes and if the writing can't always quite meet the challenge of the set up it is often powerful.

Zinnie Harris's new play is about a couple Helen (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Robyn (Neve McIntosh). At the start, it appears that the two of them have escaped from a boating accident – though there are suggestive hints from the outset that all is not as it seems. Eventually we realise that one of them died in that accident. There is an effective ambiguity, to my mind, about which of them this is. Two narratives unfold from this – firstly the puzzle of what exactly happened in the accident and the related mystery of who has survived. Secondly, the question of where in fact we are and why.

Friday, 11 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, or, What This Festival Needs is Sexual Innuendo (Apparently)

This show reflects, I suspect, two things. Firstly, another instance of Fergus Linehan's broadening of the range of cultural forms represented in the programme. Secondly, an attempt to repeat the success of last year's magnificent Alan Cumming residency. I wish I could report this show was as good.

The title implies a retelling of the fairy tale of the Little Mermaid but one which has “gone rogue” and is “subversive” according to the festival brochure. I'm prepared to accept the first, though I found it increasingly a dull roguery, but not the second – unless sexual innuendo is still considered to be subversive.

EIF 2017 – Karen Cargill/Simon Lepper at the Queen's Hall, or, A Joyous Morning

One of my favourite things about Edinburgh in August is getting to return to the Queen's Hall, one of the great venues for chamber music and vocal recitals (one day the city will wake up to this and properly support the planned refurbishment of the front of house areas, but that's another story). This particular recital was one of those lovely occasions when the performers swept me, beguiled, into their musical world.

Karen Cargill and Simon Lepper's recital was largely of late 19th/early 20th century French songs by Hahn, Debussy, Duparc and Chausson (with Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder as the finale). This is not a world with which I am particularly familiar, and I booked originally because I wanted to hear Cargill. It was a treat to discover these songs. The Hahn works in particular, which opened the recital, made a real impression on me – I think I must have occasionally heard his songs before but they didn't strike me then.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Don Giovanni at the Festival Theatre, or, A Welcome Return

When the 2017 Festival Programme was announced this stood out amongst the opera offerings after  the Budapest's glorious Nozze di Figaro in 2015. This Don Giovanni isn't quite as outstanding but it is still very good.

In my past experience this is a really difficult opera to stage – I've sat through poor attempts from Tim Albery at Scottish Opera, Rufus Norris at English National Opera and Kaspar Holten at the Royal Opera. This felt rather less of a staging than the Figaro. There are a couple of raised platforms of different heights with stairs at the two back corners of the reduced playing area. Other than that set is provided by a troupe of young actors, dressed to look (it seemed to me) like classical statuary. This provides some lovely moments – for example the carriage they form to carry in Zerlina on her first entrance, and the descent into hell where they form a writhing body of grasping hands like something out of an Old Master painting dragging down Don Giovanni works better than any other staging I've seen (though the blackout should come before they leave the stage it being otherwise too obvious (at least from the Upper Circle) that Giovanni is walking off unharmed. But at other times Ivan Fischer (who directs as well as conducts) seems less sure what to do with them, and particularly when acting as walls and balconies, impressively dexterous though they are, I didn't think it was as effective as the similar device in the recent Opera North Billy Budd. Fischer is also uneven in his direction of the principals. Overall I felt they came across as more convincing and moving characters than in any of those fully staged productions I mentioned, but there are still missed psychological depths here. In particular, I didn't think anyone had quite decided what has happened to Donna Anna in that opening attack, which is rather crucial. There are also a few clumsily managed escapes (most notably Leporello sneaking off at one point in Act Two), and Giovanni failing to recognise Elvira in their first scene in Act One was also not convincing.

EIF 2017 - Rhinoceros at the Lyceum, or, A Missed Opportunity

About two thirds of the way through this mediocre production an overt reference to Donald Trump and the United States is crowbarred in. It was at that point that it struck me that a much more powerful production of this play relating to matters closer to home would have been possible. It doesn't surprise me that this isn't the version given.

I previously saw this play in a visually striking production by Theatre de la Ville-Paris at the Barbican in (I was slightly horrified to realise) 2013. That version also succeeded in really conveying the sense of fear. It wasn't, I think, that the setting was massively more realistic than it is here, but it managed to make it feel much more real.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Flight at the Churchill, or, An Unusually Strong Reinvention of the Form

In advance I had misgivings about this show. Descriptions made it sound like another variation on immersive theatre of the kind seen at recent Festivals in, for example, The Encounter (about which I had more mixed feelings than many). This does turn out, at least as far as my experience is concerned, to have an originality of design which is most impressive. I also found it, more successfully immersive than The Encounter. The narrative which all this serves is, however, more problematic.

The design of this show is essentially a revolving diorama – with the screen divided into windows of various sizes which light up in turn as the story progresses. You sit alone in a tiny dark booth while the lighted windows pass before you, and the soundscape and dialogue unfolds over a pair of headphones. The detail of the designs in the windows by Jamie Harrison and Rebecca Hamilton is remarkable.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Khovanshchina at the BBC Proms, or, An Intensely Dramatic Evening

I'd been looking forward to this since the announcement of the Proms programme back in April. Khovanshchina is a work close to my heart, but I hadn't been able to get to Birmingham for the recent performances there, and I knew I wouldn't be able to make any of autumn Welsh National Opera performances. Add to this the fact that Semyon Bychkov was conducting, having demonstrated his credentials for epic opera a number of times at Covent Garden, and on paper this looked unmissable. I wasn't disappointed.

Mussorgsky's opera, left unfinished at his death and completed by a variety of hands – this was (with I gather some variants) the Shostakovich completion – explores the tumultuous state of Russia on the eve of Peter the Great's assumption of power. Various princes – the Khovansky brothers of the title (in command of the Moscow Streltsy or militia), Golitsyn and Dosifey (a former prince who has renounced his rank for religious reasons) jostle for position – but all are bested by the Tsar's agent Shaklovity. It was evident from chat around me in the Arena that not a few found this hard to follow. I don't feel as if I ever have, but I expect I benefited from having seen the magnificent Zambello production at ENO twice and having heard the broadcast before seeing it for the first time which I recall explaining lucidly who everybody was. In particular, it's important to realise that it was illegal to represent the Tsar on stage – hence Shaklovity – but my recollection is the ENO production did a fine job of making one constantly aware of that lurking off-stage presence.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Mosquitoes at the National, or, No, you really don't need to tell us this

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

This was my first encounter with the work of Lucy Kirkwood, having missed her widely praised Chimerica. Sadly for me this new play did not live up to that reported promise.

Kirkwood presents a rather wearily cliched and overloaded tale of familial disfunction. There are two sisters whose lives are in different ways collapsing – with the addition of the familiar device of one sister Alice (Olivia Williams) starting the play under the delusion she has things far more under control than her badly messed up sibling Jenny (Olivia Colman). Then there's Alice's unhappy teenage son Luke (Joseph Quinn), the sisters' mother (Amanda Boxer) suffering from both incontinence (showing this on stage seems to be in vogue at the National these days) and dementia, Alice's new partner Henri (Yoli Fuller), a recovering alcoholic (he's also black making an inter-racial relationship which I'm afraid came across as contrived) and a mysterious character named in the programme, though not I think in the spoken text, as The Bosun (Paul Hilton) who may be Alice's mentally ill ex-husband. There are a number of problems with all of this. There are far too many plots struggling for stage time. And this is before you add in Jenny's dead child and her role in that death, Luke hacking into and apparently bringing down the Large Hadron Collider (a crime for which Jenny is then arrested, and which the authorities at the LHC then apparently decide is a technical fault – there is also the frankly baffling question as to how on earth the pair of them get inside the facility in the first place), Jenny attempting to sleep with Henri and then trying to commit suicide and so on and wearily so on. As with the Old Vic's Girl from the North Country, Kirkwood misses that less is nearly always more powerful. More seriously, Kirkwood rarely succeeded in making these characters convincing as individuals – they remain too much types seen before.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo, or, Wondering About Cake Not Characters

Note: This is a review of the preview on Monday 17th July 2017. Press night (according to news reports) takes place on Monday 24th July 2017.

I booked for this show for two main reasons. Firstly because reports of the Benedict Andrews directed Streetcar Named Desire, which I missed, were so strong. Secondly because, as an Americanist, I feel I should see more Tennessee Williams. As I skimmed through the programme before the start I was optimistic having seen several of the performers do fine work in other shows. Sadly this revival is not a fine show.

Andrews's first major error is his choice of setting – this is partly a case of coming adrift in time and partly a problem of design. In terms of time Andrews tries to move the play out of its original 1950s setting – most obviously by having phone conversations take place on mobiles and a modernistic sound system periodically blasting out music. It is, however, very unclear where we are chronologically beyond this vague suggestion of the present day. This is compounded by Magda Willi's set design. Brick and Maggie's room is set on a sloped platform – it's furnished with a bed and a make up table of indeterminate date but certainly to my eye more recent than the 50s, and a modern shower. This is surrounded on three sides by a flat space backed by enormous golden walls. Characters can thus walk round the platform on all three sides. This design robbed the play, as far as I was concerned, of pretty nearly any feeling of oppression and claustrophobia. The text is persistently trying to emphasise this sense of entrapment but I just never believed it. In the fights, for example, there's just far too much space for people to escape into that the threat is never convincing. Then there are the collisions between the specificities of the text and this somewhat abstract design – a jarring example is the mention of the clock during the Brick/Big Daddy scene. A loud chime starts in one pause – I couldn't think why it was doing so, and when they then refer to a clock in the dialogue I simply did not believe that such a clock was actually there. The same applies to wider context, the possession of the enormous plantation outside the room is a key theme of the play, but I never really believed it was there – the setting felt more like we were in some sort of urban modernist hotel.