Friday, 22 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The James Plays, or Of Theatre and Politics

I've hesitated a great deal about whether to publish my thoughts about this trilogy of plays because I haven't found it possible to review them without reference to my personal feelings about the independence referendum. I have felt at times in the last few months that being an Englishman who now lives down south again I'm not supposed to have feelings about that referendum, but I do, and I found it impossible to keep those feelings from affecting my reaction to parts of these plays, though I also think that these plays commit other theatrical sins which would have annoyed me regardless of the opionions they ultimately seemed to me to be trying to advance.

These plays aim to "bring[s] to life" the historical eras of James I, II and III of Scotland. The programme note and publicity are coy about the extent to which it is intended that this examination should have a resonance with respect to the current debate but by the end of the evening it seemed to me that all pretence was abandoned. During the first two plays it is also difficult to avoid comparison with Shakespeare's history plays, though an interview with Rona Munro in the programme pleads that we should. Perhaps it would be more possible to do this if the settings were not so RSC reminiscent, or if the pre-performance publicity did not make the comparison so unavoidable. In the first two plays that comparison is often unfavorable for reasons we'll come back to, the third play focuses almost exclusively on the women of the royal household, is thus the most successful in escaping the Shakespearean shadow, but suffers from other shortcomings.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Kronos Quartet & Beyond Zero 1914-1918, or, A Little Over-fragmented

I think, on investigation, this was my first live encounter with the Kronos Quartet (I thought they were the quartet in Eraritjaritjaka at a long past Festival but was mistaken) and I was certainly glad to finally hear them live even though I was not wholly convinced by this particular programme.

This show fits effectively into Jonathan Mills's theme of impacts of war, particularly the First World War. That theme is working convincingly across theatre, opera and music programmes this year  something that hasn't always been the case with Mills's themes (I haven't seen enough of the dance strand to be able to judge whether it applies there also). This show is formed of two halves without interval. In the first the Kronos play a selection of pieces which, on close study of the programme, appear to span the period immediately before to immediately following World War One under the title of Prelude to a Black Hole. In the second, archive (often very archive) film of the conflict, recovered by Bill Morrison, is shown accompanied by a new score written by Aleksandra Vrebalov and played live by the Quartet.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Minetti, or Successfully Skating on Potentially Thin Ice

Thomas Bernhard's Minetti is a show focused on a subject which has caused many other shows to come a cropper. A key aim is to discuss the meaning and or point of art. Many previous attempts to do this which I've sat through discarded character and narrative and thereby became either infuriating or dull. In the first half the plight of the central character sometimes felt a bit emotionally remote, but the treatment of the ideas is compelling as is the central performance, and by the end I'd revised my opinion. I'm not sure shows on this subject will ever be my favourite form of theatre, but I forgave this one for choosing it, and it left me oddly thoughtful.

Bernhard's play, almost entirely a monologue, portrays the aging actor Minetti who hasn't appeared on stage for thirty years since he “rejected the classics” (I think that's the term used). To begin with we are led to believe that he's been summoned to a meeting on New Year's Eve in a hotel in Ostend with an old childhood friend now director of a nearby theatre who wants him to reprise his celebrated King Lear for the theatre's bicentenary. The date should perhaps give more of clue than I at first appreciated. As Minetti rambles on and on about this and related matters one becomes increasingly doubtful as to whether there ever was a meeting, ultimately, whether Minetti really is the famous actor he insists that he is. Additional layers operate on top of this. Thus, Minetti becomes Lear-like in his isolation – raging on, compellingly to those of us beyond the footlights, but facing boredom and rejection from others in the on-stage hotel. Beyond this there is, of course, the bigger question, deftly posed here as to whether there's any point to this kind of performance at all.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – SmallWar at the Traverse, or, Inexplicably Big in Belgium

The Big in Belgium mini-strand at last year's Fringe produced a number of highlights including the film Bonanza (a fascinating slice of tiny-town Americana) and the exhausting rock-balancing Freeze! It also seems to have included BigMouth which I missed, and whose follow on piece SmallWar now arrives at the Traverse. All I can say is that if BigMouth was anything like SmallWar I cannot think why it has succeeded.

SmallWar is a one man show performed by Valentijn Dhaenens and several pre-filmed projections of himself. Based on testimonies of soldiers experiences from Atilla the Hun to the present day Dhaenens has fashioned a script which is supposed to be, according to the programme note, “an emotional reflection on the trauma and repetitiveness of war”. It left me cold and increasingly bored.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – The Factory at Assembly, or, The New Musical's Problems Have Reached New Zealand

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 14th August 2014.

This is a sadly disappointing show and it is not surprising that the Main Hall at Assembly was fairly empty for this performance. I cannot think word of mouth can be doing much for it despite the commitment of everybody on stage.

The basic fatal flaw is the show itself which is undistinguished to poor in every particular apart from the basic subject matter. This is noble – an apparently largely forgotten story of Pacific island immigrants coming to New Zealand to work exploited in factories. The intention to bring this to wider notice is an admirable one, unfortunately the writers are not up to the job. The music is derivative (the villain's strange resemblance to Fagin is particularly bizarre) and forgettable. The lyrics are too often indeciferable (despite the miking). The worst part of it is the book which made me want to cringe. A whole range of stock characters are present, young lovers, tyranical parents, a camp cross-dressing relative all of them played with a deadly seriousness of tone which coupled with excessive over-emphatic gesturing does little to help the script's believability problems. Musical performances are also uneven, the sometimes excessive miking exposes some vocal flaws and some of the lead soprano's tuning at the top of her range was suspect. As already noted the performers do give this everything, but mere energy is not enough to save it.

Londoners worrying about the health of the new musical may console themselves that, on this showing, things are worse in New Zealand. Honest reporting does however compell me to note that quite a few of the audience bafflingly rose to their feet at the curtain call. I'd like to think they were as desperate as I was to get out. One to avoid.

EIF 2014 – Ute Lemper at the Usher Hall, or, In the Presence of Greatness

There are some live performance occasions when critical comment almost becomes superfluous and you simply have to acknowledge that you were privileged to be present while greatness was at work – such was the case with Ute Lemper in last night's festival concert.

In advance of this performance I had high hopes. I'm a big fan of Weimer era cabaret, and indeed cabaret as an art form more broadly. One of the best things about Mills's period as Festival Director has been a willingness to bring more cabaret and musical theatre material under the International Festival umbrella with highlights including his very first opening concert of Bernstein's Candide, and Camille O'Sullivan's cabaret inflected performance of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. However, there were dangers about this particular collaboration. Classical orchestras trying to do cabaret inflected work can come a cropper (as with the concert performance of Weill's Mahagony some years back at the Festival). The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Lawrence Foster's work was not without blemish, but so outstanding was Ute Lemper that I forgave other infelicities.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The War, or, A Pretty Stunning Piece of Theatre

When I arrived and bought my programme for this performance my heart sank for several reasons. Firstly at the discovery that the show was to last two and a half hours without an interval. Secondly at the fact that it was meshing a number of different texts together (principally Richard Aldington's World War One novel The Death of a Hero and Homer's Iliad) – an approach to scripting that I have seen go badly wrong on far too many occasions. How wrong I was. This is powerful, compelling theatre, and deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to be getting.

Perhaps people are put off by the fact that it's in Russian with surtitles. But you shouldn't be. This is one of those rare occasions when the language barrier is largely transcended. The stunning visuals, the central role played by music and the highly physical performances are crucial here, but the fact that the trenches and Troy are familiar stories also assists, as do the cast's occasional, impressive breakings into English.

The visual experience ranks up there with Theatre du Soleil a couple of years ago. Just watching this performance is a rich experience – use of aerials, of a small piano and a large chandelier as props, empty uniforms conjuring an army, the multiple uses of oars. The high point is probably the gas attack towards the conclusion but there's as much brilliance in many of the smaller moments. The way that certain scenes portray the family at home reliving the narrative of their deceased son's war as if they've stepped out of a Chekhov play is a particularly clever touch. A tiny thing like the knitting which seems bizarre to begin with develops poignant meaning by the conclusion.

EIF 2014 – Ganesh and the Third Reich, or, Trying to Survive with Fewer Words

Regular readers will know that I put a high value on the text. Words matter a great deal to me. I think they continue to be quite crucial to successful theatre and that far too many modern theatre pieces don't recognise the script as a sufficiently key element. Given this belief (others might call it prejudice) this show presented me with particular problems. The programme note puts it as follows: “With our actors it is difficult to work with a text written beforehand.” This is because all but one of the performers in this show are in some way disabled. The script apparently evolves through improvisatory rehearsal and therefore can't be judged in the same way I might judge other such devised theatrical pieces. There are plenty of strong things about this script but I also can't deny I had problems with the textual result which we'll come back to later.

First the unquestionable positives. The ensemble – Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and David Woods give committed and often striking performances. My memory is not good enough to single out exactly who plays which part but Ganesh, the Jewish concentration camp prisoner who befriends him, and the all too controlling director stand out. The disabilities of the other two performers, from the point of view of what I'm used to watching, means (and I should emphasise this is a comment against myself) that I found it harder work to engage with them, but they are compelling presences even when in the Upper Circle I was straining to make out the text. The visuals of the play within a play sequences are stunning – the use of plastic curtains, projections, basic tables and chairs and lighting to conjure environments from train carriages to forests to a ruined Berlin are all brilliantly done – particular credit here is clearly due to the lighting designer Andrew Livingston. Finally the narrative of the play within a play (that is the Ganesh retrieving the swastika bit) works well – perhaps too well in relation to the rehearsal process as I was more engaged by those characters and began to get frustrated by the frequent cutaways.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The Opening Concert, or, A Justly Resurrected Rarity

In advance of this year's opening concert I had my doubts. Jonathan Mills has several times resurrected neglected works which prove to be deservedly neglected (Delius's Mass of Life springs to mind). I recalled listening to a recording of the Debussy which made little impression on me. And Oliver Knussen at Aldeburgh tends towards the over full programme. As it turned out, Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien proved well worth hearing.

The concert actually began with Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces and Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire. I don't think I've heard either of these live before. About the first I was sufficiently distracted by disruptive audience behind me that I don't feel I can properly comment. The second is a typical piece of large forces  madness – huge orchestra, wordless choir and organ towards the end – which builds to an enjoyably loud climax but has a somewhat meandering feel up to that point. It isn't as satisfying a piece as The Poem of Ecstasy, but it was finely played and sung by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Festival Chorus and pianist Kirill Gerstein who I hope to hear again in solo repertoire. It's also always a treat to hear the restored Usher Hall organ in action, however briefly.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Tannhauser at Norwich, or, Aimless Wandering I Am Thinking

Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance given on Sunday 27th July 2014.

According to the programme, fully staged Wagner was last seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich in 1997. Before anything else therefore, it is cause for celebration that the management have brought Wagner back once again. The musical strengths of this performance fully justified the decision though the staging was sadly (probably unintentionally) by turns baffling and hilarious.

The best of the evening was musical. The Opera Freiburg Chorus and Orchestra played and sang superbly. The sound in the stalls at the big choral climaxes was extraordinary, and overall the ensemble showed both quality and precision. The soloists also impressed. Okay, these are not singers of the calibre of Gerhaher and Botha (whom I had the privilege of hearing as Wolfram and Tannhauser in the Royal Opera production) but you really can't expect quite that standard and the soloists in this performance stood up well as representatives of the tier below those exceptional artists. Marius Vlad's Tannhauser had stamina and necessary power and was especially compelling in his Act Three monologue (one of the rare places where the production was temporarily not requiring a double of him to wander about). In an ideal performance I would have more beauty of tone in the softer passages, but he was not unpleasant to listen to, and power and stamina are the more crucial attributes for the part. It was more difficult to completely banish the memory of Gerhaher while listening to Alejandro Larraga Schleske's Wolfram, but that said (and despite having one of the worst directorial misjudgements visited on him in Act Three) he did have beauty of tone, if not of quite the same order, and an impressive stage presence. Among the smaller male roles I was impressed by the vocal heft of Shinsuke Nishioka's Heinrich and the combination of beauty and strength of Roberto Gionfriddo's Walther.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Medea at the National, or, In Which Everybody Consistently (and Often Baffingly) Does the Very Thing They Ought Not to Have Done

As I made my way home from this rather dreary performance, I began to wonder if Greek tragedy has always been like this and for some reason I didn't tend to notice. That's to say, has everybody in these things always been behaving so stupidly and it's only now become apparent to me? The alternative explanation is that it is possible to give these characters more depth and make them more convincing and the fault here lies with performers and production team.

Problems start with Tom Scutt's set. This consists of a large wall. On top is an enclosed room in which, though it looks much to small for the wedding of a king's daughter, said wedding and one or two other off-stage events take place. In front of this room is a landing. A flight of stairs brings us down into Medea's large open-plan basement and behind that is a rather oddly located forest. The largest issue with all this is it completely fails to create any sense of entrapment. It feels as if anybody could escape in pretty much any direction whenever they wanted to. Cracknell ensures that her performers use the stairs and the landing but again they feel like a burden rather than an element adding power to the performances. Likewise that enclosed room I mentioned. Cracknell appears in two minds as to whether she wants to show us or not show us events which the chorus describe. We see some but not others – on the whole she would have been much better off showing us none of it.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Aldeburgh 2014 - And now for something completely different...Musicircus

It's not often you find Ravel on the programme alongside some bagpipes and Sousa's The Liberty Bell, but all that and much more could be found on Sunday when the Aldeburgh festival returned to the scene of last year's triumph, Grimes on the Beach. This year's use of Aldeburgh beach (or, for the most part, Crag Path which runs along just behind the beach) was in some ways less ambitious, requiring no stage, seating and lighting construction. In other ways, such as the better part of a thousand performers, it was more ambitious.

Musicircus is a concept credited to John Cage and first performed in 1967. Effectively it is a carnival of musicians. Think the Royal Mile in Edinburgh at the height of the Fringe (or, dare I say it, that scene a few decades ago before they tightened up on who could perform there) and you should have a rough picture.