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.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida, or, Waiting in Vain for Revelation

I think I read this play at school, but it has not particularly stuck in my memory (I hadn't for example properly registered that “prick us do we not bleed” etc. is in it). I've only seen it staged once, in an Edinburgh Lyceum production of which I retain no particular memory. This performance convinced me that there are powerful and disturbing elements to the play. Unfortunately it also demonstrated that Rupert Goold as a director lacks the ability to make those elements tell.

My previous encounter with Goold and Shakespeare was his bafflingly over-praised kitchen-set Macbeth. His Merchant has more going for it but is, ultimately, not much more successful. This time Goold has relocated the play to Las Vegas. Or at least he's relocated about half the play there. After the interval, as the play darkens, although the basic set remains exactly the same (minus the slot machines, and with the Almeida's back wall exposed through the gaudy set) it is sadly unclear where we are, with unfortunate results for the play.

While the Vegas setting is being played up, the visuals (blue and gold colouring), the trappings (the aforementioned slot machines and card tables), the extras (Lancelot Gobbo's Elvis and a number of scantily clad women) present plenty of spectacle. The problem is there's insufficient behind it. For example. Antonio plays his opening scene with Bassanio seated at a card table losing chips. Presumably we're meant to link this with a wider narrative of ridiculous gambling – all those enterprises set forth, the insanity of the contract with Shylock. The programme notes, which I read afterwards, comment the play is sometimes seen as Shakespeare's “gay play” and looking back I can sort of see suggestions of this in Goold's reading. But none of it is fully developed, or knitted together into a convincing whole. Even more bizarre is Lorenzo's “abduction” of Jessica in which they are dressed up as the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman and Robin. There's no sense of the sort of mind or life story that either of them would need to come up with this scheme and, beneath that, their relationship is left frustratingly blank – what exactly is the feeling between them, why have they together agreed on this course of action? The result is that later Antonio's plight, and then Lorenzo/Jessica scenes where you feel Goold wants to suggest troubled relations don't pack the punch they ought because those well staged moments are built on such thin foundations. The same problem goes for just about every other character and relationship in the show.

Treasure Island at the National, or The Shallow Comedic Version

Shows often have a moment which encapsulates either everything that's right with them, or everything that's wrong. A recent example was the extraordinary dance sequence in the final act of My Night with Reg. In the National's new adaptation of Treasure Island, the moment comes in Act Two during the fight for the stockade (well I say fight but two bullets is about your lot). Those who've read the book will recall that as he's directing the defence Captain Smollett is hit, but not killed. In this adaptation he dies, sprawled on the front of the Olivier stage. It isn't just the textual liberty, nor the one dimensional nature of the writing of him which makes the moment go for nothing, but the ridiculously overdone chest wound with which make-up and costumes curse him – from Row D of the Stalls it was wholly unconvincing. When death becomes ludicrous in a pirate play you have, I would suggest, got a problem.

Now it is a long time since I read Treasure Island. And maybe I am misremembering it. But my recollection is of something which was very tense and exciting, with a strong sense of threat and convincing violence. Almost from the word go, this adaptation plays it for laughs. If I say there's more chill in the delivery of the Black Spot in Muppet Treasure Island (incidentally a film I love) you'll appreciate that things have gone sadly wrong here. Actually, comparing this to the Muppet version of the story is generally instructive. There's plenty of comedy there too – think of Sam the Eagle's terribly unsafe jolly boat, or Fozzie Bear's hapless Trelawney, or Stadtler and Waldorf saving the film by saving the pig and the frog or...I could go on and on. But the difference is that all their sillinesses are part of much deeper characterisations. There's so much more to them than just the comedic moments – whether it's Bryony Lavery's script or Polly Findley's direction, this staged version fails to make any of its adult characters (with passing but not sustained exceptions for Long John Silver and Ben Gunn) into anything other than shallow butts of jokes. As a result, and distinctly unlike in the original, I never had the slightest doubt that Jim (or Jemima) would win through in the end, and, more seriously, I increasingly felt that the various adults deserved to be killed because they were behaving with such impressive stupidity. Is there now some rule that a children's show should have no convincing adult characters in it – the National might next time like to call to mind His Dark Materials, full of powerful, rounded adult characters – and consider whether this rule needs a rethink. Incidentally, it also should be noted, that the jokes in this are generally not funny enough – leave out the payoff of the Mr Grey running gag and Ben Gunn's double identity and the pickings are regrettably thin.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

In Praise of Recognising and Rectifying a Mistake

Just under a month ago, the Edinburgh International Festival announced new booking arrangements for Festival 2015. First, that the programme would be released in two segments - concerts and recitals on 3rd February and the rest of the programme on 18th March. Second, that booking for the Festival would be similarly split. Here at Where's Runnicles we have long urged a return to earlier publication of information about the Festival programme (as used to occur during the McMaster era), so announcement of such earlier publication was very welcome. However, we were strongly opposed to the proposed staggering of booking which seemed to us to make more difficult rather than simplifying Festival planning (today's announcement suggests we were not alone). Personally as someone who travels some distance to attend the Festival, and whose Festival booking is a complex jigsaw trying to fit in concerts, staged opera, theatre and if I can find space a bit of dance I was especially concerned that the new arrangements would make much harder my kind of Festival. We raised these issues with the Festival via a number of avenues.

The Festival assured us that it was listening to concerns. In today's world, however, one does become cynical about that kind of statement. I was therefore both delighted and surprised to receive Fergus Linehan's announcement this evening that booking arrangements have been revised. Concerts and recitals will still be announced in February, but booking for them will not open until after the full programme has been released on 18th March.

We live in a society where organisations often seem reluctant either to admit they have made a mistake or to take meaningful action to remedy it. It therefore seemed important to publicly thank Fergus Linehan and the International Festival for responding so constructively on this issue. Personally, it's a relief that an obstacle to my Festival planning that I really wasn't looking forward to negotiating has been removed. Instead, I now look forward keenly to finding out what artistic riches the Festival has planned for 2015, and catching as many of them as possible.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Henry IV at the Donmar, or Phyllida Lloyd Doubles Down

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 28th October 2014.

Back at the end of 2012 Phyllida Lloyd staged Julius Caesar at the Donmar with an all female company (review here). Despite the best efforts of Harriet Walter as Brutus it was not a success. The all-female casting had nothing to do with this, the problem was Lloyd's bizarre concept of setting the evening in a women's prison. This evening suggests that Lloyd is not a director to change her mind. We're back for two pretty interminable hours in the same setting, with even less to redeem it than last time round.

My irritation with the whole enterprise began when I received an e-mail on Saturday informing me that the performance was going to take place in a secure premises on Earlham Street and that I must present myself at the Seven Dials Club (42 Earlham Street) in order to be directed to these premises. What this in practice means is that you enter via the back stairs of the Donmar rather than through the normal front of house areas, and are confronted by uniformed FoH staff clearly intended to be impersonating police officers. I was thankful that I had learned from Julius Caesar and purchased a seat in the Circle as the horrible grey plastic chairs which were inflicted on Stalls patrons for that production were once more in evidence. This whole charade is annoying and as far as I was concerned thoroughly ineffectual in terms of persuading me that I was inside a prison. I did not start the show feeling particularly warm towards the enterprise.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

I Due Foscari at the Royal, or, Just Because You Can Do Things Doesn't Mean You Should

When the first attack of premature enthusiasm struck Monday's audience, pretty much as soon as the tenor had finished his first aria, I feared we were in for a long night. And so it proved.

It did not surprise me that this was only the thirteenth performance of I Due Foscari at the Royal Opera House. It is not one of Verdi's masterpieces, though I do think it would be possible to make a more convincing case for it. The major problem with the work is that so little happens. Foscari's son Jacapo is condemned to exile from Venice early in Act 1 but takes until the middle of Act 3 to actually go. It must surely qualify as one of the longest departure scenes in operatic history. To fill in the somewhat lengthy gap between decision and execution Jacopo (Francesco Meli), Mrs Jacopo (Maria Agresta) and Father Jacopo (Placido Domingo) sing a number of arias and ensembles bemoaning the miserable situation in which they find themselves. As a rehearsal for later Verdian struggles between public duty and private feeling it's mildly interesting, as a dramatic narrative in itself it really isn't. This performance didn't have the finest line up of soloists but I suspect even with that it would be a struggle to make of this more than generic Verdi – pleasant to listen to but lacking the punch and depth of Traviata or Don Carlo or Falstaff. As a work it is just all rather unmemorable.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Gypsy at Chichester, or Lara's Turn

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th October 2014. It is not listed as a preview in the brochure but the Press Night does not take place till Tuesday 14th.

Gypsy is a nastier show than one first realises. I came to see this without knowing anything about the narrative and I kept waiting for things to come out right. Of course, this being a show with a Sondheim element to it, I should perhaps know better. That said, there is usually a redemptive element to his principle characters. I found it hard to see one in Momma Rose and thus, while I was moved by things in this show, they did not include her.

For those who don't know it, Gypsy tells the story of Momma Rose's (Imelda Staunton) insatiable attempts to craft a triumphant stage career first for her daughter June (Gemma Sutton) and then for her daughter Louise (Lara Pulver). Given that the final result, or at least one of them, is the appearance of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee it could be said that she succeeds. But the price is a high one.

Strictly speaking Gypsy is a musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim). But there are rather fewer standout numbers than the form usually commands. Many of the musical numbers are intentionally terrible (the stage performances of the troupe until you get to the actual appearance of Gypsy Rose Lee), and some of those intended, I assume, to be of a more standard kind are pretty forgettable (Mr Goldstone for example). My point is, however, that this doesn't matter the way it might because this is really for long sections much more a play with music rather than a standard musical, and as a work in that form it's powerful.