Saturday, 14 April 2018

Coraline at the Barbican, or, Left Mostly Unmoved

Note: This is a review of the evening performance on Saturday 7th April 2018.

With the exception of a recording by Gerald Finley of an aria from The Silver Tassie, I've not got on with Mark-Anthony Turnage's operas in the past. I saw productions of Greek (Music Theatre Wales at the Linbury) and Anna Nicole (Royal Opera), and in neither case did they make me want to rush to hear the work a second time. On the other hand I enjoyed the film of Coraline, I'm generally a fan of Neil Gaiman's work and of fairy tales, so I hoped in advance to enjoy this adaptation. There is much to commend in the strong performances and the well crafted staging, but for me the work itself is problematic.

The ensemble of singing actors and actresses is excellent. Diction is really outstanding and the absence of subtitles is not a problem, though parts of the libretto might have benefitted from being more obscured. Mary Bevan in the title role sings with impressive power, and throws herself fully into the part - on this showing it seems to me fundamentally very challenging for an adult to fully convince as an 11 year old child while singing operatic fashion, and the fact that for me Bevan wasn't wholly convincing in this regard should not detract from the overall high quality of her performance. Kitty Whately as Mother/Other Mother shows fine versatility and I should not have known she was recovering from laryngitis without the pre-show announcement.

In the pit Sian Edwards draws spirited playing from the Britten Sinfonia. Ever since I heard her conduct Khovanshchina at ENO I've thought Edwards has that sense of drama that great opera conducting needs, she tries to conjure it here despite the shortcomings of the work, and our bigger houses ought to be hiring her more often. One small note though, the positioning of the off-stage voices could on occasion have been improved - from where I was sitting they did not sound in Act 1 as if they were coming from behind the small door at the back of the set.

My previous encounters with director Aletta Collins have been as a choreographer, and were mixed, but here there is much to commend. Movement on stage is generally well thought through. Giles Cadle's set is straightforwardly flexible – I got particular pleasure out of trying to read the show posters in the actresses living room. Magic consultants Richard Wiseman and David Britland provide some lovely moments including the white mouse and the disembodied hand. I've seen suggestions that more gore was needed, but I don't think that's really the problem.

Rather what makes this evening finally unsatisfactory, particularly in the second half which felt long to me, are the weaknesses of both score and libretto, and the marriage of the two. When I realised that I had last encountered librettist Rory Mullarkey in his poor St George and the Dragon at the National my heart sank slightly. But the text generally comes across as singable with these two caveats – there is too much of it, and the rhymes were a mistake. I wonder if both these issues reflect styles currently in vogue which those writing new opera or music theatre work need to reconsider. The problem with too much text is there's no space to linger on the moments where the marriage of text and music can find emotional power that each alone would lack. I thought that both Barry's Importance of Being Earnest and Wigglesworth's Winter's Tale also suffered from this. Was Turnage afraid to ask for cuts? Or did he, for some reason, just shy away from expressions of feeling? Whatever the explanation, the setting rarely repeats a line and as the evening wore on I felt more frequently those missed opportunities to pause, to delve into the emotional moment. To give just one example, early in the first act Whately's Mother tries to encourage her daughter about the possibilities of her new school – but as she sings about it I felt she slipped back to some painful memories of her own – but the opportunity to build a significant emotional link with the audience is lost because the word setting has to plough on. Similarly, the various stages of Coraline's emotional journey rarely really moved me because of this failure to delve. At the same time there is insufficient compensatory dramatic tension, because the overall unfolding of plot is too slow. The issue of rhyming is another problem seen in other recent new music theatre work – most notably the dire wonder.land at the National. It's very difficult to rhyme effectively in lyrics, and my general advice to librettists based on recent experience is, don't try.

Turnage's music in itself is pleasant enough to listen to and I seem to recall some moments when the orchestration caught my ear particularly, though not particularly enough I'm afraid for any of them to really stick in my mind. But the music in general lacks flexibility – it doesn't for example seem to be able to rise to the demands of climatic moments – often I felt something more was needed. There's a sameness across the evening which also contributed to the fact that, for me, the second half dragged as I realised the musical style was just going to go on largely unvaried from part 1.

In sum this was a strongly performed and staged evening, but it left me largely cold emotionally, and I didn't come away wanting to hear the work again.

Housekeeping note: It was my impression that the audience probably included a good number of people who are not Royal Opera House regulars. I found it very frustrating that the House didn't seem to have made any attempt (bar one generic advert at the back of the programme for the Summer booking period) to bring to the attention of these audience members the other work on offer. Why no brochures for next season in the foyer? Or how about arranging a poster or two to advertise a work on a similar theme like Hansel and Gretel which is being staged over Christmas (or even a special ticket offer to first time Royal Opera goers at Coraline)? Or (though I was mocked for this suggestion on social media) how about projecting a few of the upcoming opera productions on the front cloth before the start – rather than the tiresomely familiar device of projecting the title of the work which we all know already. Those of us in what I suspect is a dwindling band of opera regulars should all want to try things that might entice new audiences. Instead, I was reminded of recent experiences at the Edinburgh International Festival where director Fergus Linehan has added new artistic forms to the programme and persistently makes no attempt to try and encourage audiences at those shows to experiment with something in the established opera or classical music strands. Maybe such attempts at alerting audiences to other things they might like to try would be failures, but I don't understand why organisations seem determined not even to try.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

From the House of the Dead at the Royal, or, Distrusting the Work

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 10th March 2018.

It's been a lacklustre year for new productions at the Royal Opera, at least from where I've been sitting, and so it continues with this disappointing new Janacek. It is a real achievement to make this work emotionally cold and unmoving, director Krzysztof Warlikowski making his Royal Opera and UK debut sadly succeeds.

The trouble starts with the Act One prelude which is accompanied by subtitled film of Michel Foucault talking about the meaning of prisons. Film is also used between each of the other two acts where we are subjected to footage of what sounded to me like a black South African prisoner meditating on the meaning of life. The impact of these marvellous orchestral interludes is badly blunted by these interpolations which don't fit with the music at all, and add nothing to our understanding of the work as a whole. Janacek's opera is powerfully eloquent on the themes touched on by the films, their inclusion is simply unnecessary.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

EIF 2018, or The Drip, Drip, Drip Release of the Programme…

In my 20 years as an International Festival regular there have, broadly speaking, been four approaches to release of information about the annual programme prior to the official launch. Under Brian McMaster, a leaflet was produced around Christmas with highlights by week for the following year (usually a combination of major artists and works). This remains the best method and we have long advocated a return to it. Under Jonathan Mills the leaflet, when it was produced, became an announcement of the coming year's theme, usually with no detail as to actual performances. Fergus Linehan's initial approach was to announce a flagship show (he also opened booking for it in advance of the rest of the programme, a policy we strongly criticised and which, interestingly and positively, appears now to have been quietly abandoned). This year Linehan seems to be trying a new tactic. Since the autumn, a steady drip of announcements and leaks (usually not directly from the Festival itself) have provided more information about the 2018 programme than we have had at this stage for a Festival since the McMaster era. This information raises some questions.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The York Realist at the Donmar, or, A Masterclass in Theatre

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th March 2018.

The best theatre for me is to be found in shows which move me emotionally. I've often felt that this puts me in a minority in a cultural world where higher priority is given to shows with some kind of message (often delivered in the form of a lecture) or gimmicky productions which though technically clever are otherwise unsatisfying. So it's always a pleasure to see a piece of work as beautifully crafted as this, which gripped me with concern for these characters to the point of several times in the second half having to choke back tears.

The play is set in the downstairs room of an old cottage high in the Yorkshire Dales, the home of George and his ailing mother. Into this world arrives John, a southern aspiring actor and current assistant director of a production of the York Mystery Plays, wondering why George has stopped coming to rehearsals. And for a time into this cottage comes new love.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida, or, A Surfeit of Pianos

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 3rd March 2018. The press night took place later that week.

This is the second Tennessee Williams production recently that adopts the approach of divorcing the play from its setting. Stronger central performances mean this works a bit better than last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But in the end the approach of director Rebecca Frecknall and designer Tom Scutt's remains flawed.

The play appears, after a bit of Google digging, to have been originally set in pre-World War One Mississippi (it's pretty impossible on the basis of this production to determine when Frecknall has set it). We follow the repressed preacher's daughter Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran) in her longing for the wastrel son of the doctor, John Buchanan (Matthew Needham). The best of the afternoon is to be found in their performances. Ferran especially is fascinating to watch, and when allowed to take the subtle approach, totally convincing. Needham doesn't always quite transcend the caricature aspects of Williams's writing, but also has great presence.

Monday, 5 February 2018

John at the National, or, All My Girlfriends Turn Into Little Green Insects, That Is My Tragedy

Like Annie Baker's previous play at the National, The Flick (seen in 2016), the first characteristic of this new work is the slow pacing. As in that earlier work there are longish stretches of time when nothing much is happening on stage. But the device is less successful on this occasion because the world upon which it is deployed is far less convincingly immersive.

In place of the decaying flea pit cinema of The Flick we are in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was perhaps unfortunate that I saw this the week after happening to re-watch the Gilmore Girls episode “The Road Trip to Harvard”. That features a B&B with similarly overwhelming décor and clinging hostess. Unlike The Flick, John never really convinced me I was somewhere fresh. The next problem is one of genre. Baker has thrown at least two together – romantic comedy – or at least mockery of it – and ghost/scary story. The scary stuff is too half hearted to really impact. The treatment of the romance is undermined by the fact that the central couple of millenials are so ghastly that I pretty quickly ceased to care whether they stayed together. Indeed, I felt the play never really established how on earth they had come to be together in the first place (again there was a rather unfortunate echo of last week's similarly unconvincing millenial couple in Donmar's poor Belleville).

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Twilight Zone at the Almeida, or, It's All Good Fun Till Somebody Starts A Nuclear War

Note: A review of the performance on Tuesday 9th January 2018.

This was one of those happy cultural occasions when I set out with little expectation for a production and enjoyed what turned out to be both a funny and thought provoking evening.

First, a confession. Despite my day job (as a historian who specialises in the United States) I had never seen an episode of the 1950s-60s TV show from which this play is adapted. Fortunately, I can report if you're in the same boat it really doesn't matter. Adaptor Anne Washburn selects eight episodes originally broadcast between 1959 and 1964 and then intercuts them with each other. Storylines include trying to identify a Martian among a group of travellers in a diner, a portal to another dimension opening beneath a child's bed (the occasion for the glorious explanation for summoning a friend to assist: “He's a physicist!”), a tragedy of cryogenic freezing, a man tormented in his dreams by a woman dressed as a cat (the occasion for a fine cabaret number) and the threatened nuclear war mentioned in the title. We shall return to the last mentioned later.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Salome at the Royal Opera, or Finding Insufficient Menace

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 8th January 2018.

I first saw this production by David McVicar back in its original run in 2008. I wasn't wild about it then, but it's been a while since I've heard this work live so I thought I'd give it another go. I got on better with the production than I remember doing first time round, but as a whole the evening didn't quite find that taut feeling of menace which I think a great Salome really needs.

McVicar sets the evening in the palace loos – though this now seems subtler – possibly it's been altered, or I was sitting in a different location. Above is Herod's dining room and a spiral staircase down which Salome, and others descend as the action proceeds. During the Dance of the Seven Veils the rooms fade away, and we are presumably in either Herod's or Salome's minds, or a combination of the two – it isn't quite clear enough. The general effect throughout is to ramp up the sordidness – particularly at the beginning with female nudity. I can see why this is so – it is a pretty sordid story. But I can't help feeling that less and more subtle would pack more punch. There are two particular issues with making it so sordid from the outset – there's nowhere for the production then to go, which hinders ramping up the dramatic tension, and for me at least it hinders finding any sympathy with the protagonists – the best versions find more moral complexity in it. In his direction of the principals McVicar has flashes of insight – particularly in interactions late on between Herodias and her daughter, but characters aren't sufficiently sustained across the totality of the piece. There are also some simple oddities – why on earth the executioner has to be stripped naked to do his job escaped me, and excesses – there's too much wandering about aimlessly from members of the court and their servants – particularly the periodic exiting during Salome's final solo when the focus should really be completely on her.