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.

EIF 2016 – Measure for Measure at the Lyceum, or, Failing to Solve a Problem Play

Unlike Twelfth Night I've only seen Measure for Measure once before, and I don't remember it working terribly effectively. This production arrives trailing large numbers of positive reviews from a 2015 run at the Barbican. The supertitled text convinced me that it is a play capable of having a strong impact, unfortunately the production largely failed to achieve this.

As with Shake this is another minimalist staging. The set consists of five large red boxes – three at the back and one each at the sides. The textual reference to our being in Vienna has not been removed, but as so often in modern productions in Shakespeare the actual setting gives an insufficient sense of place. The use of the boxes to shrink the stage, most of the time, is, like other aspects we'll come on to, presumably intended to emphasise the trapped situation of the various protagonists. Unfortunately, there were too many obvious avenues of escape, and this was further undermined by the decision to send the ensemble wandering randomly about the whole stage on several occasions for unclear reasons.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Shake at the Lyceum, or, Too Ingenious for Its Own Good

I love Twelfth Night. I think this makes about the fourth version I've seen on stage. One day I hope to see a truly great version that is both funny and moving (as I believe the play to be). Unfortunately this latest in a long, and not terribly distinguished, line of foreign Shakespeares at the International Festival is not that version.

This French version by Dan Jemmett is set, according to the publicity, in a 1970s seaside resort. In practice the rather minimalist set – a row of beach huts and a picnic table, doesn't really suggest anywhere terribly concrete. The costumes and music do a little more but not much. The huts with their frequently slamming doors do suggest French farce is intended as a model, but unfortunately the pace of the play, and its tragicomic character are actually not well served by that idea. The more followed through ideas are to be found in the casting, particularly the doubling, and the direction of the performers. These are certainly often ingenious (as the programme note claims) but they don't add up to a satisfying, convincing total version of this play.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

EIF 2016 – The Salzburg Norma, or, Success By Dramatic Force and Charisma

This flagship of the 2016 Festival was a fascinating experience. The production has flaws, there were occasional slips in musical cohesion, and the question of Cecilia Bartoli's performance in the title role is a complex one. But the level of red blooded drama, anchored by Bartoli's electric presence, ultimately overrides the questions.

The only previous time I heard this work live was in the comparatively recent Opera North run performed, as I understand is standard, with a large orchestra and bigger voiced singers. This version, as other reviewers have noted, sees the forces downsized, quite evidently to accommodate Bartoli. This does bring clear benefits, and frankly I don't think Bartoli needed to make such claims to the idea that this is what Bellini originally intended (which seems to be debatable). It's a perfectly defensible approach on its own merits. For one thing it is easier, it seems to me, to locate appropriate sized voices that blend effectively with each other when you downsize everybody than it is when you're trying to cast large voices.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Barry Humphries' Weimar Cabaret, or, Histories from a Vanished World

I always enjoy spending time in this particular musical world. What made this show unique was the presence of Barry Humphries as compere and sometime performer. This gives the evening a particularly personal touch as Humphries describes its origins in his discovery of a case of Weimar era music in a secondhand bookstore in Melbourne, brought there by one of the era's exiles. Alongside Humphries's masterfully delivered, and often moving, anecdotes we have cabaret songs performed by Meow Meow, and orchestral pieces performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra directed from the violin by Richard Tognetti.

The musical selection includes plenty of Weill (unsurprisingly), but also Hindemith's Kammermusik Op.24 No.1 (why his work doesn't get more performances I don't know) and a wonderful selection from Krenek's Potpourri. The Australian Chamber Orchestra were, to my ears, heard to better advantage here than in their Queen's Hall concert on Saturday, and Tognetti was excellent in the solo part of Brand's Black Bottom. I also very much enjoyed the rare chance to hear Toch's Geographical Fugue.

EIF 2016 - Mark Padmore/Kristian Bezuidenhout at the Queen's Hall, or, A Masterclass in Lieder Singing

This was one of those occasions of music making when it was quite simply a privilege to be present. I wouldn't have predicted this with complete confidence in advance because Bezuidenhout was playing a fortepiano. I can't recall ever hearing one live before, and on broadcasts the sound has often stuck me as a bit tinny and unsatisfactory. But in this case it proved to be the perfect partner to Mark Padmore's voice.

Great lieder performances to my mind require a number of things. Firstly a real dynamic and expressive range to the voice. Secondly, the ability to harness that to a general physical performance resulting in both elements harmonising to command the attention, but without going over the top. This doesn't happen, even at the top level, as often as you might imagine. But it unquestionably happened yesterday morning.