Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera, or, Not an Experience I Care to Repeat (On-stage or Off)

This evening started indifferently, became increasingly unconvincing, and during the last two acts was overshadowed by an audience experience the like of which I have never seen in twenty plus years of opera going. I would be happy if I could think I should never see anything like it again. While the increasingly bizarre production stumbled on, and the audience atmosphere worsened, the performers on stage and in the pit made a valiant attempt with largely high quality musical performances to rescue matters, but it was not enough.

The best of the evening it will already be clear, was musical, and even that struggled against the lifeless production during the first two acts. In Acts Three and Four, and particularly after the outbreaks in the auditorium which we'll come back to, the perfomers seemed to raise their game and find in the music some of the electricity so sadly absent from most of the production. John Osborn (Melcthal) sang especially finely (and deserves high praise simply for keeping going at the start of Act Four ). He and Malin Bystrom (Mathilde) also managed to find additional passion in their Act Three duet despite the best efforts of the director to confuse matters. Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell) didn't come across as strongly as I'd have expected early on, but again gave a fine performance in the last two acts. Among the minor roles I particularly enjoyed Enkelejda Sjikosa's Hedwige, but they were all solidly taken. Both Orchestra and Chorus battled gamely against the distractions and incoherencies of the staging. In the first two acts Pappano's conducting seemed somewhat infected by the leaden quality of what was going on in front of him, after that he located the needed drama.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Waiting for Godot at the Barbican, or, An Outstanding Evening

Owing to the Edinburgh International Festival in recent years I'd already discovered, contrary to what I'd expected, that I enjoy Beckett on stage. It was primarily for that reason that I booked to see Waiting for Godot for the first time in this run of performances by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican. I hoped it would be good, I did not anticipate such a hilarious, moving and quite simply totally compelling evening.

Having now actually seen it on stage what seems to be the standard joke about it – that nothing happens, twice – seems the more puzzling. To my mind at least there's a great deal going on. The basic plot (as most readers will probably know) involves Vladimir and Estragon waiting through two days for Godot who, needless to say, never arrives. On both days some of the time spent waiting is occupied by the passing through the possible meeting place of Pozzo and Lucky. The premise itself (of waiting for Godot) is surely one of the finest running gags in the history of theatre – the more so as it becomes laced with an ever increasing, at times almost unhinged, desperation. And behind it, there's an extraordinary richness of ideas – about how difficult it is to live as an individual, the equally potentially ghastly problem of and yet indispensible need for companionship, the yearning for something beyond the world we see in front of us. At the same time, the play is a superb send up of the whole ludicrous idea of putting plays on stage in the first place. That it manages to do this so sharply, while being equally capable of chilling the viewer is testimony to a vital contrast to the many more recent practitioners who've attempted similar sending up. Beckett's mockery, unlike many would be successors, is never dismissive or contemptuous of the form. He makes us laugh at ourselves as viewers and then, suddenly, he reminds us precisely why we're still there.

Oresteia at the Almeida, or, Something of a Trial for All Concerned

Note: This is a review of a preview performance on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. The Press Night took place on Friday 5th June 2015.

There's a moment in Act 4 of this performance, by which point Orestes is being tried for his crimes, when the judge (representing an interminable list of Gods) asks the audience (we are clearly intended to think of ourselves as part of the court) whether they have any objections. It was mainly the fact that the performance had by then been going on for some 3hrs and 15mins that restrained me from responding.

Robert Icke here performs fairly radical surgery on Aeschylus's three plays in order to get them into one evening (it does not even so justify its 3.5hr+ running time). But he is also, as a number of other recent London versions of the Greeks have been, concerned to assert the work's modernity. In Act One particularly, Icke was I thought determinedly trying to make us draw parallels between Agamemnon and the Trojan War and recent Blair/Bush escapades in the Middle East. To me it felt forced, and, moreover, it doesn't altogether fit with what I recall about the original narrative – which is to say that the Greeks are not about to be attacked by the Trojans, but that the sacrifice of Iphigenia is to secure fair winds for their strike against Troy in retaliation for their abduction of Helen – all of this backstory has been deleted. This is far from the only deletion/addition, but the overall effect, as will be explained, is ambivalent. The biggest change is that Icke spends the whole first act (1hr 10 mins) to get us to the death of Iphigenia – a sequence of events that takes place before Aeschylus's plays even start. Yes, okay, I take the point that this can be seen as the origin of all the woe in the family that follows – but this only works if you clearly establish the link from that death to Klytemnestra's actions, and Icke creates an almost precisely opposite effect. All we see, until she eventually kills him (by which point and despite knowing the story well I was beginning to doubt whether she actually would) is someone who is accepting of the death of her daughter and appears to have forgiven her husband. Now you can argue Klytemnestra is being a very good actress concealing her true motivations from everybody, but if she also conceals those completely from the audience such that her killing of Agamemnon seems to come from nowhere then as drama, it's a failure. Another contributory factor here is the decision to largely write out Aegisthus – he only appears after Agamemnon has been murdered and is then played by the same actor – such that I rather suspect anyone not knowing the original would have been not a little confused by where he had come from and what his role in events was. Icke tries to get round this by implying that we are seeing all this through the eyes of Orestes who was unclear on those points. It is not a convincing decision.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Pirates of Penzance at ENO, or, An Un-Advertised Concert Performance

For years now (and indeed again next season) ENO has relied on Jonathan Miller's venerable Mikado as a reliable revival. How the management must have hoped that hiring Mike Leigh on the back of Topsy-Turvy to direct Pirates of Penzance would furnish them with an alternative such show. But it was not to be.

Let us start, however, with the positives. This is a pretty good show musically. There are no weak links in that department among the soloists and two stand-out performances from Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King and Claudia Boyle as Mabel. It is perhaps no coincidence that those two are also the most successful individuals in transcending Leigh's lifeless production. Among the rest Robert Murray sings well as Frederic, but lacks stage presence, and all the chemistry in their partnership comes from Boyle. Andrew Shore hams it up as the Major-General – fine in theory in this rep, but it needs to be a bit more tongue in cheek. There were flashes of promising presence from Alexander Robin Bloom's Samuel, Soraya Mafi's Edith and Lydia Marchione's Isabel – a more talented director could have made something of them all, Leigh pretty completely fails. The singing and playing of chorus and orchestra under the direction of David Parry is of a good standard, but I couldn't help feeling in places (the Act 2 double chorus and Hail Poetry are obvious examples) that the chorus needed more vocal weight.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Antigone at the Barbican, or Solid Not Special

Note: This is a rather belated review of the performance on Sunday 8th March 2015. Usually I would not post something so delayed, but because we have a particular interest in the Edinburgh Festival and this travels there later in the year I wanted to record my thoughts despite the delay.

Late this month I'll finally get round to seeing Ivo van Hove's production of A View from the Bridge. Possibly it will then be clear to me why he's been much praised. On the strength of this performance it was not. It's not that this is a bad production, though there are some oddities, but I can't say that I found it either especially powerful or perceptive.

The setting is sparse. There's a raised platform in the centre into the middle of which various of the show's bodies are periodically raised and lowered, and with an access ramp leading into Kreon's house at the back. Along the front it can be accessed by various sets of steps and also facing the audience are a number of bookshelves and a sofa. The implication at the end, the reasoning behind which I couldn't make out, is that we are in some sort of archive. At the back there's a flat panel the width of the stage onto which various things are projected which add little. With the exception of the projections and the ending it's all perfectly serviceable if not especially inspired. The same applies to the costumes, which are modern and minimal, and don't do much to distinguish the characters, though this may well be intentional. I would criticise the high heels which all the women seem to be wearing which sometimes create a false note (as when Antigone is being buried alive) or undermine an attempt to hurry from one point to another (Ismene on a couple of occasions).

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Game at the Almeida, or, Nasty but Unconvincing Shots

This is the second play Mike Bartlett has written for Rupert Goold's Almeida, and the third of his plays that I've seen. Neither 13 nor King Charles III especially impressed me but Game is in a different class...and not in a good way.

Bartlett's premise on this occasion is that a housing and employment crisis in some unidentified location in England (one presumes a city) has led a couple to accept a house under an unpleasant condition. That condition is that at certain times of the day they can be shot with tranquiliser darts by paying punters. I criticised Bartlett's over-praised King Charles III for its unconvincing premise. Bartlett makes even less of an attempt with the premise here. The play is completely uninterested in exploring the economic circumstances which have led to this set up, or in creating characters of sufficient depth to make their presence in the set-up, and their choices following that, have any real dramatic conviction, or activate any emotional connection (with at least this member of the audience anyway). Instead Bartlett attempts to substitute audience complicity for intelligent argument or depth of character. Thus the audience are placed, with the paying, shooting customers, in four blinds outside the gift house. All this succeeded in doing was convincing me that I had not the least desire ever to participate in such an excuse for sport and that I did not believe (not unlike in King Charles III) that such a set up would ever have got legally off the drawing board.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at ENO, or Fine Performance, Doubtful Omens

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 21st February 2015

Wagner's Mastersingers, the programme advises, hasn't been seen at English National Opera for over thirty years. That it returns now, just as the company has been placed in special measures by the Arts Council, is ironic to say the least. On its own terms this is a very strong performance which shows the company at its best. What it tells us about the company's possible future is considerably more open to doubt.

But first let us look at this performance on its own merits. The finest work across the whole evening was unquestionably that of Edward Gardner on the podium and the ENO Orchestra in the pit. They delivered an account of this glorious score that was spacious and heartfelt but never lost momentum. Just occasionally I thought a little more attack was needed – the riot didn't quite reach the pitch of chaos it needs though the staging was also a factor here – but this is a minor quibble. Unlike many, I have a fondness for the Coliseum sound which I still feel has more warmth (if that's the word I want) than Covent Garden. I've long dreamed of hearing this score in this house, and I wasn't disappointed.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Man and Superman at the National, or, Settling Down for a Nice Long Conversation

Note: This is a review of the fourth preview on Friday 20th February 2015. 3 further previews remain. The Press Night takes place on Wednesday 25th February 2015.

Productions of Shaw's plays have been a highlight of recent years at the National and I've consequently been looking forward to this since it was announced, especially as Simon Godwin was returning to direct after his magnificent work on Strange Interlude. It did not disappoint.

This was my first time seeing the play. In advance I read an interview with director Simon Godwin which discussed the question of the omission of the dream sequence in Act 3. I think he is perfectly right that it is in fact an integral part of the work which, to my mind, enriches the debate about relations between the sexes and adds an extra dimension to the resolution of Act 4. Nor is this an evening which felt to me too long – Godwin and his ensemble make 3.5hrs absolutely fly by.

Previous Shaws I've seen usually involve a debate about something, and Man and Superman is no exception. In this case, Shaw's main concern is a broad survey of relations between the sexes, the nature of marriage, appropriate gender roles. However, there's a gloriously wide-ranging character to this work, so that one is also carried into barbed remarks on Anglo-American relations (a professional interest of mine), class, socialism, art. Moreover, while serious questions are under discussion in all these areas the play almost never loses a sense of fun (bouyed up by sparkling one-liners of which my pick was that concerning muffins and inspiration, while my companion's was that regarding a moral gymnasium). Further, while Shaw in my experience gives scope for rival points of view (and thereby scores over many modern “issue” playwrights who struggle badly with this) it usually remains fairly clear where his loyalties lie. Here I found things intriguingly ambigious – especially in terms of what attitude we're supposed to leave the theatre with regarding Tanner's fate. Only one aspect did seem underexplored – that of Tanner as author of The Revolutionist's Handbook.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Eugene Onegin at the Barbican, or, Who Are All These People?

I'm beginning to have the slight suspicion that Eugene Onegin is one of those stories which is not for me, as this is the second version of it I've seen which left me cold, though it may not have been helped by the fact I was labouring under a nasty cold to start with.

The first problem was the rather baffling concept, the purpose of which was no clearer to me at the end than at the beginning. Rimas Tuminas has decided to set the adaptation in a dance studio in which various men (whose reasons for being there are also opaque) decide to start reciting Pushkin's poem. The effect of this peculiar arrangement was to put a hurdle between me and a real emotional engagement with the narrative from the beginning because I couldn't work out who they were and I didn't really believe in them.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

3 Winters at the National, or, “I sometimes still find hope...”

Tena Štivičić sets herself a daunting task in this new play at the National. Taking four generations of a Croatian family and the house in which they live as her theme, she seeks to tell the story of Yugoslavia/Croatia from the end of the Second World War to Croatian accession to the EU. At times the weight of history and ideological debate threaten to drown the characters but a haunting truthfulness shines through.

Štivičić picks three moments (the three winters of the title) to observe her characters: 1945 and the end of WWII, 1990 and the imminent collapse of Yugoslavia into war and 2011 (Croatian accession to the EU). But this is not a straightforward chronological narrative – scenes from across the three periods are intercut with each other. Close attention must be paid to keep on top of the stories, and another result is to leave one wanting at various points to see more (the Dunya-Karl marriage in particular is a little lightly drawn). Overall though the intercutting is well judged – enriching our understanding of the different moments and the characters shifting predicaments. A spellbinding instance is the final scene of the first half. We've already seen the youthful Alexander King (Alex Price) in 1945, hampered by a royal name that is now a liability, striving to match the Communist convictions of his wife and conscious that he doesn't altogether believe. We've also seen him stretch out a hand to the aristocratic Karolina whom the Communists have evicted from the house. Now we see him, an old man (James Laurenson) in 1990 following his wife's funeral. Out of nowhere he starts telling the story of his perilous survival at the end of the war. In itself it's a magical piece of writing, and Laurenson delivers it to perfection. But it was the little moment that follows which really got me. The tv news announces the breakdown of the Communist Party Congress, signalling the appalling war we know will follow. Director Howard Davies has the now old Karolina (an imposing Susan Engel) slowly move to a chair beside Laurenson, and take his hand, their eyes never leaving one another's faces as the curtain falls. It's moving for the human gesture, but more because it is impossible not to be conscious, because we've already been witnesses to it, that they've suffered this kind of thing before. Their resigned silence tellingly reminds us how easily we forget.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Judy Mackerras

As regular readers will know, we at Where's Runnicles are great admirers of Charles Mackerras. We were saddened to learn of the death of his wife Judy Mackerras on 13 December 2014. She was a remarkable person and I have very fond memories of the occasions when I met her.

Our father, Garth Pollard, a friend of the family for many years, delivered one of the tributes at Judy's memorial service on 17 January 2015. The following post is drawn from that and is published with the permission of the Mackerras family.

Readers may also be interested to know about the forthcoming book about Charles Mackerras edited by Nigel Simeone and John Tyrrell, due to be published later in 2015.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Highs and Lows of 2014

It's that time of year again...and it hasn't been an especially vintage year...

Best Opera: Dialogues des Carmelites at the Royal Opera by a country mile. The only perfect marriage of production, work and performance this year. Honourable mention to Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera at the Barbican.

Worst Opera: There was plenty of indifferent stuff, particularly at the Royal Opera towards the end of the year where, thus far, the Holten regime is having more misses than hits, but nothing was truly awful.

Best Play: I saw a lot of indifferent theatre this year, and none of the London houses I regularly attend had an especially strong year, but one show stood out from it all – the stunning (and bafflingly ignored by other end of year round ups) My Night with Reg at the Donmar. A show that reminded, as so often, that strong characters and narrative still trump most everything else. It transfers to the West End in the new year and is unmissable. Honourable mention for EIF's The War in what was a uniquely good (in my 17 years experience) year for drama at the International Festival – visually stunning and ultimately moving.

Worst Play: Henry IV at the Donmar made a valiant effort to win in this category but just escapes by virtue of the presence of Harriet Walter. As a result the palm goes to a show I didn't review at the time, the dull, unconvincing Little Revolution at the Almeida.