Thursday, 16 February 2017

Beware of Pity at the Barbican, or, Technically Impressive (if Familiar) but Emotionally Cold

Note: A belated review of the performance on Sunday 12th February 2017

My past experiences with those involved in this production have been mixed. I thought Complicite's The Master and Margarita was remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Simon McBurney's The Encounter, and I was not impressed by the Schaubuhne Berlin's Richard III (touring alongside this show and featuring some of the same cast). As I seem to be saying depressingly often these days other critics, and social media opinion, have largely raved about this one but it left me cold.

As a staging it reminded me strongly of The Encounter. Although some scenes are partially staged (usually in lighted space centre stage) and there is some use of props and the wearily familiar projections around the sides and to the back, far too much of this show consists of people delivering text into onstage microphones. As a radio play this would work better, as theatre, for me, it had an alienating effect which the show never transcended. A similar problem bedevils the adaptation (by McBurney and colleagues). I haven't read the book, but other reviews suggest that the adaptors have maintained the narrative style – wherein the older Hofmiller recalls the experience of his younger self. There are two issues here. First, because the narration is constantly telling you how people feel and what to think about things there is little room for the viewer to use his or her own imagination – like far too much theatre at the moment there is a lecturing element. But secondly, and more seriously, on too many occasions the narration drags on (there is also not enough variety of delivery) with insufficient visual accompaniment. On a radio, where you have to imagine the scene from the words this might work quite well – on a stage cluttered with actors sitting at their microphones there is a constant unconvincing divorce between text and visuals.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Hedda Gabler at the National, or, “Why are you talking like this?”

I'll begin by admitting to three possible biases. Firstly, I've been unimpressed by the last two van Hove shows I've seen (Kings of War at the Barbican, Lazarus at King's Cross). Secondly, I am currently generally dissatisfied with the National Theatre which under the Norris administration is, in my view, falling short too often of the standards it should attain. Thirdly, despite many attempts I have never really managed to get on with Ibsen. It may be that one or some combination of all of those three issues and not the flaws of this particular show explain why it failed to wow me.

Ivo van Hove and his set designer Jan Versweyveld set events in one large, unfurnished room. I like to have an aisle seat and, in advance, I was rather staggered that somebody could have managed to direct in the Lyttelton in such a way that side Stalls have to be sold at restricted view – in fact there was scarcely any visible effect. The problem instead is primarily one of sound. In consequence, I assume, of the bare nature of the playing area, everybody sounds, most of the time, as though they are shouting. This badly undermines the finding of nuance in the drama – because the performers start, or it sounded where I was sitting as if they start, by shouting – as relationships fray there is nowhere vocally for people to go. Related to this is a second problem of emotionless delivery – having seen several of these performers give fine performances in very different roles I assume this to have been at van Hove's direction. It becomes particularly apparent after the interval leading me to increasingly wonder whether van Hove actually thinks any of the events are taking place at all. Van Hove also seems determined to make motivations as clear and in the audience's face as possible. Ruth Wilson's Hedda is so hostile to her husband (and indeed everyone else) from the first scene that, again the play gives itself nowhere dramatically to go.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Love's Labour's Lost/Much Ado About Nothing at the Haymarket, or, An Undeserved Transfer

In advance of these performances I was looking forward to them. I hadn't seen Love's Labour's Lost since Ian Judge's fantastic 1993 RSC production, and Much Ado is very close to my heart. Sadly it proved to be a thoroughly disappointing day featuring uninsightful direction, weak casting and poor verse speaking.

Christopher Luscombe has chosen to set the plays on either side of the First World War. Thus Love's Labour's Lost ends with the four men going off to the front, and Much Ado About Nothing begins with their return. In the case of Love's Labour's Lost this is especially unfortunate for someone like myself who saw Judge's production. In that case, the hint of what is to come was done with great subtlety – simply with a dimming of the lights and the distant sight and sound of the guns in Flanders. Luscombe forces the point, by bringing the quartet of men back on in their uniforms and loses the punch of the moment as a result. In Much Ado, with the exception of Don John and Dogberry there is really no sense of any of the other characters having been through the horrors of the conflict. Dogberry does appear as if he might be both mentally and physically injured but the way in which this is turned into a subject of mockery is frankly disturbing and, I finally felt, inappropriate. As an aside there is something similarly troubling about the way all the lower class characters are afforded regional accents.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Mary Stuart at the Almeida, or, Ultimately Untrusting of the Audience

Note: A belated review of the matinee performance on Saturday 21st January 2017.

Regular readers will know that I have not been a fan of recent work at the Almeida, or of Robert Icke's work as a director. As a result I was not optimistic in advance of this performance. There are some strong aspects to this show, but overall I found it a more mixed experience than many.

Icke chooses to set the work in an unspecified modern time and place. That's to say although the script keeps all the stuff about prisons, England/Scotland etc. there's really nothing in terms of the almost bare circular stage to help to make that concrete. The show gets away with this in the scenes at the English court, it is rather more problematic in Mary's prison where the set completely fails to give any sense of oppression, and in the outdoor meeting at Fotheringhay where there is no assistance to the contrast the script evokes between prison and the outside world. Within this bare environment, Icke's movement direction is bizarrely inconsistent. In the English council scene and the intimate Leicester-Elizabeth encounter which follows it is excellent – adding point to the sparring councillors, sensuality to the duo. But elsewhere Icke is much less sure footed – his decision to have the queens sprawled on the ground for much of the famous encounter is a mistake, as is the choice to have the subsequent debate over the death warrant conducted by the participants charging round in circles while the set simultaneously revolves beneath them – it's distracting and ineffective. Icke also commits the familiar error of leaving a dead body (Mortimer) on stage and clearly visible to the protagonists of the next scene despite the fact that they are clearly not supposed to be able to see it or to know that character is dead, and of not getting people off stage swiftly enough at the start of other's soliloquys which they (those departing) clearly should not hear. On several occasions, I was reminded of the unsuccessful film close-up style Icke employed in his recent indifferent The Red Barn at the National. Here as there, I felt that Icke expects you to watch particular faces and places and therefore pays insufficient care to his onlookers, or to how people get off the stage. The problem is that, unlike in film where the director can give effect to such wishes via what he chooses to film, on stage that power is not the same.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal, or, Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

The Royal Opera is retiring a few much revived productions these days, with the Schlesinger Rosenkavalier the latest to go. There's always a risk involved and, equally, it's clearly a necessary process. In this case picking Robert Carson, on the basis of recent work that I've seen, was a sound choice for a popular work which needs a revivable production. The Board can breathe easier knowing that his new version is revivable. Whether it has the endurance qualities of Schlesinger's is rather more open to doubt.

Carson has chosen to set the work in 1911, the year of its composition. This is most conspicuous in Act 2 and during the final moments of Act 3, elsewhere it is unobtrusive. Carson's best work comes in his direction of the principals. He draws a nicely judged masculinity from Alice Coote's Octavian which creates a really effective physical contrast between her and the other two women. He has thought, as so many opera directors don't, about the interaction between the leads – on many occasions in those powerful intimate scenes at the ends of Acts 1 and 3 he gives extra point to music and emotion by how he has them move. When the large bed was first lowered in Act 3, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Glyndebourne production, I was not convinced but Carson makes eloquent  use of it later – as the Marschallin stares at it we feel she is looking back to her Act 1 assignation with Octavian, and when Sophie draws Octavian to it for the final duet there's something lovely about it. Carson also seems to be interested in the idea of moments of this opera taking place as some kind of internalised dream. There is textual support for this – and it creates some effective pictures – the Marschallin listening to the Italian tenor at the levee as if to a record and at the same time remembering nights at the opera (it reminded me of The Drowsy Chaperone, a whole show based on a similar conceit), Octavian and Sophie's first duet in Act 2 where Carson contrives to make the whole room fall away.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Love at the National, or, Ultimately Evading the Harder Arguments

In advance of this show I had considerable misgivings. Partly because my run of poor experiences at the National over the last year or so has given me low expectations. Partly because this has garnered considerable critical praise and I've disagreed with similar choruses on several NT offers lately. And partly because the advanced advertising made clear this was an issue play – and I have seen far too many poor plays in that category in recent years. As it turned out, some aspects of this 90 minute one act grew on me. There are some strong performances in the company and at times I was moved, but I found the end less powerful than others and I think this is a show which takes an easier way than might be apparent at first sight.

The setting is a shared flat with communal kitchen/living room and bathroom. Its inhabitants (so far as we are shown) are Nick Holder's Colin looking after his incontinent mother (Anna Calder-Marshall). The mixed race couple: Luke Clarke's unemployed and recently evicted Dean and pregnant Emma (Janet Etuk), plus Dean's two children (if I understood correctly Emma is not their mother and one of several flaws in Alexander Zeldin's script is that it is never established how this situation has arisen or what has happened to their mother). Finally we have two under-written refugees – Hind Swareldahab's Tharwa and Ammar Haj Ahmad's Adnan.

St Joan at the Donmar, or Ineffective Modernisation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 7th January 2017.

The previous time I saw this great play was at the National Theatre in 2007 directed by Marianne Eliot and starring Anne-Marie Duff in the title role. Shortly before I attended this new version a debate arose in my twitter timeline about the appropriateness or otherwise of making comparisons to past productions/performances. I personally think that criticism to be meaningful needs benchmarks. In addition a great production of a work I've seen previously actually usually has the effect of making me forget, while I'm watching it, that I have seen those previous versions (a recent show that achieved this was the Opera North Billy Budd). But to return to St Joan. That 2007 NT production was outstanding. Josie Rourke's new version doesn't run it close, mainly because of a badly judged attempt at modernisation.

Recently I've felt that rather a lot of directors appear haunted by the Iraq war (Ivo van Hove's recent Barbican Shakespeare mash-up and Robert Icke's ineffective Oresteia at the Almeida spring to mind). This seems to result in a desire to make plays which weren't specifically dealing with that conflict overtly speak to it – the results in my experience are rarely effective. Rourke's St Joan falls into this trap. Robert Jones's set (bar the beginning and the end) consists of an enormous glass conference table and pastel covered chairs on wheels, backed by video display screens. The table is further placed on a revolve, and proceeds to do so for almost the entirety of the show – this device adds nothing. As on other occasions with this kind of narrowing of focus of geographically expansive work, the show loses a sense of kingdoms being at stake – not only because the world is so circumscribed but more significantly because rooms and costuming are so nondescript we could be pretty much anywhere in the modern world. No doubt that is the point, but it falls down when the script is so very clear about when and where we are supposed to be. Putting only Joan in more medievalish garb only further confuses the issue. The table also imprisons the actors – it hampers the ability to create effective tension in positioning and interaction. On occasion Rourke goes even further to deliberately hamper this – most notably in the bizarre decision to have Joan's meeting with the Dauphin staged as a video conference call.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Highs and Lows of 2016

Edited in early January to reflect two events I inexplicably managed to miss out of the original...

It's that time of year again...


Best Opera: The lacklustre recent form of London's two main houses continued. That said an honourable mention for the fine revival of Tannhauser at the Royal Opera. Outside London Opera North delivered a powerful, moving Billy Budd. But the palm goes to a show I reviewed first time round, this year getting its second outing: Glyndebourne's outstanding Cunning Little Vixen.

Worst Opera: Plenty of dreary but not irredeemably awful opera this year. Honourable mention for the Aix Cosi at Edinburgh (hopeless production but musically solid).

Best Play: Despite the National having a generally dismal year it did produce two outstanding shows which tie for this award: Les Blancs and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Honourable mentions for Mr Foote's Other Leg, the RSC Cymbeline and the hilarious Harlequinade revival.

Worst Play: Exceptional level of competition for this for the second year running. The National appears now to be trying to compete with the Almeida for how many indifferent to awful shows it can put on in succession. Collectively their candidates for this award in 2016 included Oil, Boy, They Drink It in the Congo, Sunset at the Villa Thalia and the sadly disappointing revivals of Waste and As You Like It. Edinburgh had a second disappointing theatre year under alleged theatre man Fergus Linehan. In the end it comes down to the endurance test that was van Hove's Shakespeare mash up Kings of War (Barbican) and the painful Anything That Gives Off Light at Edinburgh - the latter just edges it.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Billy Budd at Opera North, or, The Power of Cumulative Effects

To me, Billy Budd is one of the great operas and I've been lucky to see some outstanding performances including the Albery ENO production and the more recent Grandage production at Glyndebourne. But I am always grateful for an opportunity to see it again, for repeated viewings so far have only confirmed its power to me. This strong evening at Opera North was not an exception.

This Budd is directed by Orpha Phelan. I had previously seen a semi-staging of hers at the Barbican  but nothing else. She takes a straightforward approach with a curving upper railed balcony for the officers, space for the men underneath that, an open area in front which with small changes to lighting and furnishings doubles for the variety of other onboard settings. Finally she encloses the whole in decaying grey walls – the house, or perhaps somewhere else inside Vere's mind where he struggles with his regrets. Visually it isn't as totally satisfying a production as were the Albery and Grandage ones but it still works perfectly well, and, especially in Act Two, Phelan reveals other gifts which I rate exceedingly highly. Firstly, and this was especially apparent from the luxury of the Stalls, she has worked effectively with many of the individual performers to craft detailed characterisations. This is already brought out for Redburn (Peter Savidge) and Flint (Adrian Clarke) in their Act One scene with Vere – their “Don't like the French” duet is masterful. But it builds to new and powerful heights in the trial scene. Here Phelan and her performers really capture the sense of entrapment. Redburn's horror when ordered to preside is palpable, as is the desperation in their final plea to Vere to assist them. Phelan also makes the unusual decision to include a small amount of movement alongside the famous sequence of chords describing Vere informing Budd of the verdict. The cabin (formed by a wall of male bodies) dissolves and a tortured Vere stares upstage where we can just see Budd sitting with his back to us. Then, slowly, he goes over and sits down alongside. To me, it was a simple, powerful piece of movement which complimented, indeed reinforced the music.

Lulu at English National Opera, or, A Dated Shocker

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Saturday 12th November 2016.

I didn't have particularly high hopes in advance of this production. My previous encounter with the work of William Kentridge in Edinburgh did not impress me and a first hearing of operatic Berg (Wozzeck) at the Coliseum a few years ago did not make me want to rush back for more. So I booked for this primarily on the principle that I will see any opera once.

This show does have one strong element. It wasn't finally enough to sustain my interest over the 3 hour and 40 minute running time, but it does deserve high praise – the musical performances. During the first act I was a little doubtful as to whether Brenda Rae as Lulu had the necessary vocal weight – up in the Upper Circle there was a lightness to the voice when it seemed to me the role required more presence. But Rae's vocal performance does strengthen through the evening, there may also have been an issue with the layout of the set in Act One. She sings many of the high lying passages with great beauty – though I did think Mark Wigglesworth could have brought those rare more lyrical moments out more, it isn't all brutality – and in a punishing role her stamina sees her through to the end. She also throws herself fully into the acting side of the role – that that doesn't perhaps make the impression it could is a function either of the work or the production – I remain in doubt as to which. I was surprisingly impressed by both James Morris's Dr Schon and Willard White's Schigolch. The last occasions on which I heard them both I thought the voices were becoming strained and not up to the demands of the roles they were taking. Here this was not a problem. Both were vocally and physically compelling. The Countess Geschwitz is a smallish role for a singer of Sarah Connolly's talents, but her rich mezzo brought welcome vocal variety to the texture and she found, I thought, more in the not always convincing movement of the production than some of the others. Also very fine, as Lulu's other lovers were Michael Colvin's Painter, Nicky Spence's Alwa and David Soar's Athlete. The minor roles were all well taken. In many ways, from a vocal and acting point of view, this was a rich ensemble show of the kind that was once, before the disastrous John Berry era, ENO's calling card. In the pit Mark Wigglesworth draws committed and powerful work from the ENO Orchestra. My one quibble would be that there are some phrases in the text that seemed to me to hint at a greater complexity of character than the production really wanted to get at and that the musical interpretation could have done more to point those up – Lulu's reaction when her first husband dies for example.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Cymbeline at the Barbican, or, Making Magic from Potential Muddle

Regular readers (and twitter followers) may have noticed that I've been suffering a run of poor to indifferent shows. It is therefore a joy to be able to say that this RSC Cymbeline breaks the run, in magical, moving fashion.

As a play Cymbeline is at times like a compendium of Shakespeare devices, characters and plots all thrown together into an occasionally crazy pot. We have battles stepping out of the history plays, feigned deaths akin to Hero or Juliet, recovered heirs as in The Winter's Tale and a darker reusing of the idea of love tokens seen more happily in All's Well. Then there are the abrupt deaths, the sudden changes of tone, and an exposition heavy final scene. It is easy to imagine a less accomplished team coming to grief. That instead the play transcends its limitations is I think a tribute to the way the team trust it. From the outset this show simply asserts belief in this world and its abrupt changes of fortune, and that tone successfully carried me over even the most bumpy textual moments.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Oil at the Almeida, or, “It's Going To Get Worse”

The Almeida under Rupert Goold, like the National under Rufus Norris, has become a venue that I approach pessimistically. Sadly this was another occasion when that pessimism proved all too justified.

This new play by Ella Hickson is, as the title makes obvious, about oil. It starts in Cornwall in the late nineteenth century when a random American turns up to bring kerosene to a squabbling, struggling farming family and ends sometime in the mid 21st century with a Chinese company discovering cold fusion and mining the moon. In between we visit pre-World War One Persia, 1970s London and 2021 Iraq. In theory these disparate locations are bound together by the two central characters of mother May (Anne-Marie Duff) and daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) but there's a problem. You may ask how it is that May, already pregnant in Scene 1, is still alive and looking not much older in Scene 5. The play makes absolutely no attempt to answer this question, or to provide any substitute scenario to explain who Duff and Kettle are playing in different scenes if it is not the same May/Amy. The result, by the time we reached Scenes 4 and 5, was to render the relationship, as far as I was concerned, hopelessly unbelievable.