Sunday, 15 May 2016

Zender's Winterreise at the Barbican, or, Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 12th May 2016.

The original version of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is, in the right hands, one of the most searing pieces in the repertoire. Although it requires only two performers it possesses remarkable emotional and musical range. I was sceptical in advance about whether the work could be improved, or even equalled, either via orchestration or, particularly, the addition of multimedia elements. Committed performances from Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia under Baldur Bronnimann did not convince me otherwise.

I mistakenly thought, until I read the programme afterwards, that Zender's orchestration dated from the Weimar era, in fact it dates from the early 1990s – possibly I was misled by elements in the design of this performance which seemed rather influenced by the world of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. Schubert's original is still largely detectable, and the additions are not challenging but rather bring to mind other familiar voices such as Bartok, Strauss, Wagner and, obviously, Weimar cabaret. The sound world stretches from slightly twisted Schubertesque chamber music to Hammer Horroresque film score. Overall, it struck me musically as an interesting occasional piece but one which suffers from fundamental weaknesses in comparison to the original. Zender is so busy bigging up effects that he doesn't leave the space for the listener's imagination that the original piano accompaniment allows. More seriously it manages, for me, to lose the emotional power of that original. The finest moments, tellingly, came when the orchestration was sparest and Bostridge was delivering the vocal line straight out (Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus in particular).

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Why the European Union Youth Orchestra should be Saved

I am a passionate pro-European. One of my reasons for this, which doesn't get the kind of public emphasis that I think it should, is that it is ever more important in a world where nasty, narrow-minded nationalism seems resurgent that we break down rather than increase barriers between nationalities. I consider the European Union for all its faults still a powerful vehicle in enabling that to happen. One important way in which I believe such an agenda can be taken forward is through finding ways to bring members of different nationalities together in pursuit of a larger goal. For 40 years, in the no doubt small world of classical music the EU has facilitated this through its support of the European Union Youth Orchestra.

I am not claiming that the mere fact of uniting young people from 28 nations in a symphony orchestra is necessarily going to change the world but I do firmly believe that it achieves two powerful and important things. Firstly, it can, and the evidence from past participants clearly shows that it does, forge links between those who participate who might otherwise never have encountered one another. Links which go on to enable other such cooperation and moments of understanding. Secondly, it is a powerful symbol of cooperation between nations at a time when we badly need such things. As an aside the Orchestra regularly delivers high quality performances (I recall with particular pleasure a fabulous one of Busoni's mad Piano Concerto at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012).

Monday, 25 April 2016

Les Blancs at the National, or, Whose Country Is This?

In advance of this performance I was worried that it was going to be another Norris era lecture – where the desire to make political points trumps drama. Fortunately, this turns out to be an enormously powerful piece of political theatre. In lesser hands many of these characters might verge into caricature, but this excellent ensemble in harmony with Yael Farber's effective direction successfully find that individuality.

Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play, final text adapted (as the programme has it) by Robert Nemiroff is set in an unidentified African country embroiled in an increasingly bitter independence struggle. The use of the term Emergency perhaps hints at Kenya, but the story wisely doesn't get pinned down since it wishes to, and depressingly can, stand for too many places. The action takes place in a Norwegian run medical/religious mission in the heart of the jungle staffed by whites who turn out almost all to be, for all their apparent connections to the native population, as problematically racist as the white settlers off-stage. A palpable air of threat hangs over the central mission house (the main piece of Soutra Gilmour's set), abetted by miasmas of smoke and a superb soundscape (Adam Cork and the Ngqoko Cultural Group). The average audience member will probably anticipate the fate of the building, they are perhaps less likely (I certainly didn't) to anticipate the other, human, fate revealed on the last page.

Kings of War at the Barbican, or, Ivo van Hove makes a film

I've seen a good many foreign Shakespeares over the years, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival, and mostly they've been poor (though oddly enough not the last foreign language version of the Henry VI trilogy). Sadly this latest work by the in fashion Ivo van Hove is not an exception.  After the long first half I was just indifferent, by the end of the four and a half hours I was pretty fed up.

Van Hove has amalgamated Henry V, the three Henry VIs and Richard III (plus a bit from Henry IV Part II at the beginning). After sitting through the show I'm still unclear what he was trying to achieve by doing this. His deletions and inclusions can be curious but it is less those textual choices and more the overall effect which is the big problem. This is because van Hove succeeds in the surgical removal of pretty much any sense that there is a kingdom at stake, or that there are more than a handful of people inhabiting it or dying for it. The set consists of one enormous room, behind which are a set of white corridors which we see, interminably and ineffectively, on film. It's an increasingly boring space to look at. I suspect we were supposed to think of modern leaders launching air strikes from their bunkers (some of the visual projections are overt about this) but frankly this is illuminating neither about those modern leaders nor the Shakespearean text, and it isn't in any case followed through in a sufficiently sustained way.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Akhnaten at ENO, or, Philip Glass's Operatic Limitations Repeated

I went to this performance purely for completionist reasons as it was of an opera that I had not previously seen. Having endured three previous attempts at the genre by Philip Glass my hopes were not high (you can read my thoughts on the Barbican Einstein on the Beach and ENO's Satyagraha). This is not as interminable as Satyagraha, but it is not great opera.

The problem on this occasion is with the work itself. I concur with others who have argued that Glass uses more orchestral colour here (particularly brass) than in other works of his I've heard. He also seemed to me more willing to allow for fleeting melody. This can't finally transcend the basic limiting character of Glass's repetitions – this is music that dramatically to my mind either goes nowhere or goes to the same place over and over again with diminishing effect – but it does make them more bearable. Influences of greater composers also seemed more evident here than in other Glass operas – Wagner for example (the programme note cites Purcell) with the overall unfortunate effect that his weaknesses against their greatness are the more exposed. All that said the approach does work better here than in Satyagraha, because the subject matter lends itself to this kind of style more readily – particularly in the heavily ritualised Act One.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Cleansed at the National, or, Extremes of Violence, Nudity and Sex Will Take You Only So Far

Note: This is a review of the final Preview performance on Monday 22nd February 2016. The Press Night is this evening.

As a general rule with my cultural activities I am willing to see most things once, though I admit I do exclude immersive theatre, other things which advertise audience participation in advance, and horror films. I mention this because even when booking for Cleansed I was hesitent, and reading reports of earlier previews I nearly abandoned the whole thing. In the end my completionist streak won out, I went, and survived. However, I never need to see this play again, and I am not convinced of its merits.

First, the positives. The cast are very strong and deserve enormous credit for what must be an exhausting experience, both physically and emotionally. I should also have thought it was unpleasant but I assume performers must measure such things in such a context differently otherwise I can't see how you would cope with these roles. Michelle Terry, on stage almost throughout, deserves particular praise.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Highs and Lows of 2015

Where has the year gone?!

Best Opera: Not a vintage year at either of London's two main houses, but fortunately other places made up for it. A tie between a show I didn't review, Glyndebourne's witty, straightforward, and human Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and the outstanding semi-staged Le Nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Worst Opera: The Royal Opera made a strong bid for this award with their dire production of Guillaume Tell, and English National Opera also tried for it with their dreary Pirates of Penzance, but no opera in 2015 was completely without redemption. No award.

Best Play: A vintage year. Honourable mentions to the moving 3 Winters at the National in early January and to the RSC's Oppenheimer. Even then it's still almost impossible to separate three top class shows: the Barbican's superlative Waiting for Godot (I haven't laughed so much at a show since One Man Two Governors), the National's mesmerising Man and Superman and the smaller scale but no less powerful Temple at the Donmar. Godot just edges it.

Worst Play: Exceptional level of competition for this and almost all of it was from one venue, Rupert Goold's Almeida. Critical opinion keeps raving about work there, from where I was sitting in 2015 it was flop after flop. The worst was the ghastly Game back in March. Honorable mention for the Traverse's revival of the interminable An Oak Tree at the Fringe.

Best Musical: A tie between two shows I didn't get round to reviewing, the Donmar's outstanding revival of City of Angels, and Memphis in the West End – the latter a far tougher and more powerful take on American race relations than I'd anticipated.

Worst Musical: There was no award for this until in mid-December Rufus Norris's misfiring first year at the National made a successful bid for it with the dismal wonder.land. Will it survive till April?

Unclassifiable Show of the Year: The remarkable En avant, marche! at the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival. Comes to Sadler's Wells for a short run in June as part of LIFT 2016. Well worth catching.

What am I looking forward to in 2016: Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale and Zoe Wanamaker in Harlequinade in early January. The return of the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra to the Barbican in February. The incredibly starry casting of Grey Gardens in Southwark. And with luck (as I'm still waiting to hear about my ballot result) a number of goodies in Glyndebourne's very exciting 2016 season.

Shows Dr Pollard is still waiting for revivals of: Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens, 1776 the musical (with the number of off-West End musicals these days you'd think somebody would get round to this gem), Prokofiev's War and Peace (presumably the ROH can't find an off the wall director who wants to do it and ENO has likely both junked the marvellous Albery production and in any case can't afford even a revival of such a show at present) and a proper main stage revival of Follies (if only Norris had picked that for his inaugural musical revival at the National rather than the Threepenny Opera).

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Husbands and Sons at the National, or No Way Out

As usual, just when I was beginning to despair of ever seeing a really good piece of theatre again (after a run of three particularly dismal shows at the National), the magic returns. The show responsible on this occasion was somewhat surprising given that the author is D.H. Lawrence, a writer I last encountered (and disliked) at school.

This play is, it seems, an amalgamation (by Ben Power) of three plays by Lawrence, all set in a mining community similar to the one in which the author grew up. This mash up evidently offended some critics who remembered performances of the individual plays from years ago and thought they were weakened (for some fatally) through being combined. Not having seen the plays before I had no such problem, and if I hadn't been told it was a combination of three plays I'm not sure I'd have known. The stories were very effectively linked together by two common threads: unhappy households and the curse of the mining existence – from neither is there any escape, to which is added a further layer of pain since it is by no means clear that the characters wish to.

Here We Go/Evening at the Talk House at the National, or, Committing my Cardinal Theatrical Sin Twice in One Evening

Hot on the heels of the dismal wonder.land come two more National Theatre misses (and the rest of Norris's first months in charge weren't that hot to start with).

First up on Thursday I suffered through Caryl Churchill's Here We Go. This is the third Churchill play I've seen and it remains beyond me why she is considered one of our greatest playwrights. This one consists of three short scenes (the second and third ones of which both seriously outstay their welcome). First we are at a wake where the guests give snatches of information about the deceased before telling us how they themselves will die – since we have hardly met any of these people (and Churchill is plainly uninterested in giving us any more information about them) it is difficult to care very much – though I did enjoy seeing Susan Engel (wonderful in 3 Winters back in January) in action again. Second, we meet the deceased (I don't really see how there can be any doubt about this) in what is presumably the afterlife where he treats us to a tour of literary and religious ideas about that afterlife – lectures rarely work on stage in my experience, and this is no exception not least because all we know by the end of the scene is that we don't know what happens when we die which I already knew before I came in. Third, and most interminably, we watch as the same old man, assisted by his care worker, changes from pyjamas to day clothes and back again time after time after time in silence. Has there ever been such a desperately drawn out fade to blackout?

Wonder.land at the National, or, It Should Have Stayed in Manchester

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 12th December 2015.

There is really only one reason to see this show, and that is Anna Francolini, who makes a valiant effort to inject some life into it. Sadly the material is too weak, and she is not on stage enough to succeed. After the experience of Dr Dee (Damon Albarn's last foray into musical theatre and one of the many nails in English National Opera's coffin) my hopes were not high (and fell further after reviews of the initial run at the Manchester International Festival), but I didn't think it would be quite so dull and too often cringe-inducing as this.

The show is dramatically inert. The plot moves forward with a slowness that is at times desperate (when I first glanced at my watch and saw only 25 minutes had passed I knew we were in for a painful afternoon). It is about the putting back together of Aly's (Lois Chimimba) family, and getting Aly to value herself as she is (the show has a terrible tendency to hit the audience over the head regarding this point). Aly achieves this first by retreating into the world of on-line gaming (where she creates an avatar (Alice)) and the show inadequately connects with its source material) and finally by renouncing this world. Oh and there's an attempt at a villain in the form of Francolini's Ms Manxome – an unhinged headmistress. None of the interactions, characters, or relationships are given any meaningful depth by text or music, though Francolini almost deceived me at times.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Staggering! Booking for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival


We all make mistakes. To err is, after all, human. The important thing is to recognise when you have done so, and to learn from them, and to try to not make the same mistakes again. Also, it never hurts to apologise.

In December 2014, the Edinburgh International Festival announced that they would open booking for concerts and recitals before announcing the rest of the programme. This infuriated us as we like to immerse ourselves in the full breadth of the programme. Doubly frustrating as it seemed a rash and ill thought out decision, with little consideration for the impact it had on many loyal supporters of the Festival. For example, it was interesting when, earlier this year we received a fundraising call. We mentioned our displeasure at the staggered booking proposal, to which the member of staff gave a hollow laugh and admitted they'd had a busy time dealing with the feedback.

Still, it seemed the lesson had been learnt. Festival Director Fergus Linehan wrote a letter to all those who complained. This was subsequently sent to supporters. The matter seemed to be concluded and, credit where credit is due, we thanked the Edinburgh International Festival for heeding feedback.  Unfortunately that decision came too late for them to reverse their decision to put the theatre production Antigone on sale early, and because of that they lost the opportunity to sell a ticket for it to us (we instead chose to see it in London).

Sadly it is now clear we were wrong.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Showstoppers present Where's Runnicles, the song

Our friend, and former contributor to this blog, Andrew Pugsley is currently appearing in the west end with The Showstoppers. If you're unfamiliar, it's an astonishing and hilarious improvised musical, based on suggestions from the audience. We maybe a little biased, but have seen it many times at the Edinburgh fringe and can thoroughly recommend it. See review here.

We donated some money to their recent crowdfunding campaign to help with their London run. In return, they made us this fun video answering a question we've asked from time to time. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.