Sunday, 10 March 2019

Rossini's Elizabeth I at the Hackney Empire, or, Simple is Best

Note: This is a review of the first night on Saturday 2nd March 2019.

Regular readers will know that I'm a Rossini fan. There have been a few stagings of the rarer end of Rossini's prolific output at the Royal Opera in recent years, often irritatingly, sometimes bafflingly over-complicated though at least usually blessed with strong singing. One of the great pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable evening therefore is James Conway's unfussy, straightforward production.

Musically there is likewise much that is excellent. On the podium John Andrews, with whom this was my first encounter, showed a perfect understanding of the Rossini style. The pacing, the build up of crescendos, that wonderful light sweep in the strings, the needed character (from playful to sad) in the winds and brass - Andrews draws all of that from his fine orchestra. As always with the best kind of Rossini performance when the mood is upbeat I simply reveled in the fun, but Andrews also knows where to linger to catch at the heart.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Tartuffe at the National, or, Insufficiently Fleet of Foot

Note: A review of the performance on Thursday 28th February 2019.

In the opening stages of this show I rather hoped for a fully comedic evening - in the present state of the world our theatres could, quite frankly, do with a bit more sheer escapism. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that this comedy is married to yet another Norris era attempt to lecture us about that world beyond the theatre walls. That attempt suffers from a heavy handedness which infects the more comedic elements depriving them of the lightness, the ease of the best comedy. The result is another evening at the National which drags.

The show is blessed with an enjoyably opulent set (Robert Jones), even if the double doors at the back don't slam with quite the force or ease that the farcical element of the script really needs. Director Blanche McIntyre also successfully shrinks the large Lyttelton stage, although she has been less careful regarding sightlines for those on the front left hand aisle paying full price. With the help of physical comedy director Toby Park she engineers some brilliant surprise entrances. But pacing is often slow, the farcical elements never get quite wild or quick enough, there's an insufficient sense of affairs spinning out of control, and the tilting floor at the end is gratuitous rather than menacing.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera, or, Adrift in Spaces

Note: A belated review of the performance on Saturday 9th February 2019.

After last year's disappointing From the House of the Dead I'd hoped the Royal Opera's Janacek cycle was going to pick up with this second installment. Sadly, while it's mostly strong musically, Richard Jones's production left me emotionally cold and, in Act 3, increasingly irritated.

In the title role Amanda Majeski has been highly praised (some near me gave her a standing ovation). She certainly sings much of the role very finely - particularly her near monologue in Act 3. But in other places I would have liked a little more breadth to a sound that sometimes to my ear came across as a little shrill. As an actress she simply didn't make the same impression on me she seems to have made on others, though perhaps that was down to Jones's direction. The rest of the large number of solo roles were solidly taken but nobody consistently held me vocally. In the pit Edward Gardner making his house debut (and the latest candidate being advanced as Pappano's potential successor) shaped this score far better than Wigglesworth did last year's House of the Dead, and drew spirited playing from the Orchestra. But overall the musical qualities were not enough to distract from my irritation with the direction.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another at the National, or, We Are Listening to You. For Hours.

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 4th February 2019.

It was instructive to see this show the evening after Ian McKellen's mesmerising solo tour de force at the Bridge. This show also possesses fine performers in Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, with a strong supporting turn from Jessica Gunning. Blanchett in particular delivers a mountain of text as compellingly as McKellen. Unfortunately there's a considerable gap between the poetry of such great writers as Shakespeare and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the prose of Martin Crimp.

I'd previously seen a revival of a Crimp play at the Almeida and his two operatic collaborations with the composer George Benjamin, none of which did much for me. This text is considerably worse. We are in a garage in which a couple are playing sex games, with an audience of four. Who exactly the couple are, why they've taken to this peculiar kind of role playing, why on the theme of Pamela (this show is allegedly variations on Richardson's novel - not having read it I can't comment on to what extent that claim stacks up), and why on earth three of the quartet of watcher-participants are involved are all questions which struck me as pertinent but which Crimp never answers. He does belatedly indicate that the fourth watcher is being paid - which given what we are expected to accept that gentleman is subjected to suggests that the unemployment situation is far worse than I'd realised. In place of meaningful exploration of character or motive, or indeed plot that goes anywhere, all we get is endless talk. It was not clear to me what the message was or even if there was one. Occasionally a striking image leaps out from the verbiage, but mostly, despite the best efforts of the performers I just could not get interested in what was going on.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

An Evening with Ian McKellen at the Bridge, or, In the Presence of Greatness

Note: A belated review of the performance at the Bridge Theatre on Sunday 3rd February.

If you're lucky enough to have secured a ticket for this theatrical event, the first thing to do when you arrive is buy a programme. Not only will this go, along with all the profits, towards a worthy cause chosen by the venue (for me it was for Flute Theatre to undertake educational work with Southwark school children) but it contains a map. More vividly than the list of venues on the tour's website it shows the scale of what McKellen is doing. In this era of justifiable concern about accessibility, McKellen is making a remarkable practical commitment by playing venues like The Hafren in Newtown or the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis - places, I suspect, that rarely see a theatre performer of such stature (it struck me as a rather sad, but unsurprising comment, on my current home town of Lincoln that its fine Theatre Royal has missed out).

The show itself is in two parts. In the first, longer, section, McKellen combines recitation (from Tolkien to D H Lawrence), anecdote and autobiography. In the second, we go on a whirlwind tour through the best bits (in McKellen's view) of Shakespeare. The first with its windows into vanished worlds - a time when Bolton had three theatres, a time when male couples could not openly show their affection for each other for fear of arrest - I found the more moving. McKellen's delivery of the Shakespeare is consistently magnificent - someone should be planning a production of As You Like It so he can cross Jaques off his list, and Shallow's recitation of the dead was haunting - but the framing device, which I thought required selective deafness on McKellen's part wears a little thin.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Die Walkure at the Festival Hall, or, Now the Audience Must SEE her Horse

This was an afternoon that started strongly, blessed by some electrifying singing from Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Act 1. Sadly thereafter things deteriorated so that by Act 3 I was just looking forward to the end.

I couldn't make the recent Ring Cycles at Covent Garden, and the last time I heard any of the cycle live was back in 2013 at the Proms so a return felt overdue. Family had also reported favourably on Vladimir Jurowski's conducting and the LPO's playing after last year's Rheingold (if not on Matthias Goerne's Wotan). Regrettably this cycle's problems with that role continued.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Sweat at the Donmar, or, Of Perennial Problems of New and Issue Plays

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 19th January 2019.

This latest in a sequence of recent American plays to make it to London arrives with a considerable reputation having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017 (I was very struck to realise that one of the works it beat to that award was Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America - on the basis of my encounter with the first part of the latter at the Barbican the decision was definitely the wrong way round). Since it opened at the Donmar before Christmas it has received unanimous critical praise, and an examination of Twitter when I was writing this produced not a single audience member who was less than impressed. But I'm afraid I could not agree with all these people. From where I was sitting this was a flawed play which did not tell me anything really new about the issues it discussed.

There are strong aspects to the afternoon. The design of the central bar set, by Frankie Bradshaw and lit by Oliver Fenwick is beautifully done, and manages one of those occasions when the Donmar convincingly becomes another world. The detail of the objects chosen for the wall hangings particularly stood out. There's nice use of archive TV footage (presumably selected by Video Designer Gino Ricardo Green) although the sense of date was to my mind more concrete in that footage than from the actual text.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Queen of Spades at the Royal, or Just Wait Till Tchaikovsky Attempts Suicide With His Own Quill Pen

I'm not quite sure why I booked to see this. I previously ticked off The Queen of Spades the last time the Royal Opera revived its previous production, and it hadn't stuck in my head as a work I desperately wanted to revisit. I'd seen two Herheim productions and not been wowed by either of them - particularly not his version of La Cenerentola which played at the EIF last summer. As this long afternoon dragged on I'm afraid I was increasingly eager for the finish.

The best of the performance came in Act 2 Scene 2 thanks to Felicity Palmer's electrifying Countess. In her lieder like aria of reminiscence, Palmer's voice sank almost to a whisper. There was a palpable deepening of the stillness in the auditorium (a few coughs notwithstanding) - it was one of the rare moments when I felt the show was really holding the audience. There was also fine work from Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) in his big aria (particularly commendable given the amount of silly things Herheim gives him to do), and from the Chorus in the religious chorale like passage towards the conclusion.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

I'm Not Running at the National, or, Neither of Them, Thank You

The issue play is a popular form at the National these days, and this is another in a lengthening line of indifferent ones. The state of the Labour Party and of the NHS are both topics which also seem to be in vogue. On the former we've had the flawed Labour of Love and the brilliant Limehouse, on the latter the recent Hallelujah! This play combines the two themes in an episodic treatment ranging from 1996 to 2018.

It is the decision to posit an actual Labour party leadership contest in 2018 which is at the heart of the work's problems. Firstly, historically, there wasn't one - and at the time there was frankly little sign there was going to be one. Secondly, the terms in which Hare imagines this fantasy leadership struggle emerging are so divorced from the actual history as to render the story deeply unconvincing. Hare posits a Blairite type centrist (so far so fair enough), against an independent woman who has only just joined the Labour party and who has made her political career on the single issue of being elected in Corby by opposing the closure of the NHS hospital there. Hare seems to be unaware that the defining issue of our politics in 2018 and indeed for several years prior to that was Brexit. Moreover recent general elections have decimated the minor parties and independents - our actual politics, contrary to one of the theses of the play, is becoming more tribal rather than less. He also ignores the actual character of the two most recent struggles for the Labour leadership - some glancing comments on the soul of the Labour party notwithstanding, there is an absence of engagement with the Corbyn-moderate battle which defines Labour at present. Had Hare set this debate during the Blair era, or towards its end, and rendered it a purer history piece it might have worked better - though even then the whole argument feels rather redundant in the context of our current political crisis. In sum, Hare seems to want to be making a comment on our contemporary political moment, but nothing really lands because the picture of that moment he constructs is increasingly divorced from reality.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Tell-Tale Heart at the National, or, In Wearily Familiar Territory

Note: A belated review of the performance on Friday 4th January 2019.

This riff on Edgar Allan Poe's short story commits a series of my more highly ranked theatrical crimes. But perhaps the most notable, and unwise, is to include quite a number of statements in the text which were presumably intended to be jokingly self-mocking and in fact invited firm agreement from this audience member - this began early in the first half with a masturbation joke ("Who wants to watch that?") - we have already by that point had the masturbation and on-stage toilet visit presumably so Neilson can say look what I can do on stage at the National - and concluded when this tedious show was crawling towards an ending with "Well the play was shite anyway." Indeed it pretty much is.

My only previous encounter with author and director Anthony Neilson was his work Realism at the Edinburgh International Festival back in 2006 which was one of the many mediocre new plays I've sat through there over the years. This is worse. The central problem is that Neilson can't seem to decide whether he wants to make a comedy or a chilling murder mystery. Mostly the evening sticks to the former (although many of the jokes are tired and while some in the audience laughed I rarely did). However, as the second half drags on the show makes an attempt to shift to the latter. The whole set up has been so mocked to that point I couldn't take the shift in tone seriously. A further problem with the shift is that, to work, it would require the viewer to be engaged by the plight of Celeste/Camille (Tamara Lawrence). Unfortunately, she is written as such an arrogant, tiresome individual who goes far too unchallenged by anybody else on stage that I felt the sooner she was arrested and removed to prison the better. The writing inflicted on Lawrence is generally problematic - it's difficult to see why Nora (Imogen Doel) is so attracted to her and it's simply ludicrous that David Carlyle's Detective seems to find it so difficult to spot that she's committed a murder when the signs are, in my view, unmistakable. The heights are reached when a voice over claims that Lawrence has planned the whole crime meticulously - a new definition of the term I was not previously aware of.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Highs and Lows of 2018

Here we go again...

Best Opera: A tie between Paul Bunyan (ENO at Wilton's) and a show I didn't review, Vanessa at Glyndebourne.

Worst Opera: From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera made a bid for this but evades it by virtue of some fine musical performances. No award.

Best Play: Strong competition for this. An honorable mention for Pressure (at the Park Theatre). Runners up - the small scale gem The York Realist at the Donmar, and the magnificent epic Imperium (RSC in the West End). But the palm goes to the simply outstanding The Lehman Trilogy at the National (bizarrely overlooked in other roundups) - not to be missed when it transfers to the West End next year.

Worst Play: Norris's National picked up a bit this year, though the output remains uneven. The miss rate at both the Donmar and the Almeida continued to be too high. Dance Nation at the latter and La Maladie de la Mort and The Prisoner at the Edinburgh Festival all made strong bids,but nothing was irredeemably awful this year.

Over Praised Play of the Year: Nine Night at the National (which I didn't review) and Summer and Smoke at the Almeida both made bids for this but the award goes to The Inheritance. The themes it explored were far more powerfully investigated in Angels in America, outstandingly revived at the National in 2017. I was also struck by the extent to which the almost complete absence of female characters passed without critical comment.

Best Musical: A vintage year including a trip to New York City and a number of recent Broadway hits finally making it to London. Hamilton, Company, Fun Home, 42nd Street with its mesmerising dance routines and Caroline, or Change with the incomparable Sharon D. Clarke all made bids for the crown. Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester came very close - Clare Burt's performance in the title role was stunning - the show ought to have transferred. But the award goes to the small-scale, powerfully moving The Band's Visit on Broadway - a show I really hope somebody is going to transfer to London.

Worst Musical: No Award.

Best Concert: Pierre-Laurent Aimard & Tamara Stefanovich’s EIF Queen’s Hall recital of Brahms’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

Unclassifiable Event of the Year: The extraordinary Taylor Mac: A 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America - Act 1 from LIFT at the Barbican.

Eleven O'Clock Number of the Year: Waitress which I also caught on Broadway is an uneven show, but the number Used To Be Mine sung in the context of a disintegrating marriage was worth the price of admission alone - unforgettable.

Shows Dr Pollard is STILL Awaiting Revivals Of: The transfer of WNO's production of Prokofiev's War and Peace to Covent Garden is really exciting and takes it off the list (finally). However, there is still no sign of Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens or 1776 the musical (I had hoped the arrival of Hamilton in the West End might have led someone in London to look into the latter, but no such luck). And I'm going to put Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms because it's over 10 years since the last main stage revival at Chichester and this is a joyous show that deserves to be regularly seen.

Shows in 2019 Dr Pollard is Looking Forward To: The return of the NT production of Follies. The belated arrival of Craig Lucas & Adam Guettel's wonderful musical The Light in the Piazza in London (it's another strong year for London transfers with two other acclaimed Broadway shows - Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen also arriving).  Billy Budd at the Royal Opera (though the production will have to go some to beat the recent runs at Glyndebourne and Opera North). The overdue return of Alex Jennings to the National in September.

Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican, or, A Bland Updating

Note: A belated review of the performance on Thursday 20th December 2018.

This is a show that feels like it is trying a little too hard to be down with the kids. It updates the action to a bland modern setting which, ultimately, lacks dramatic conviction. The ensemble too often seem to be struggling with the language. There are occasional flashes of inspiration but overall it lacks punch.

The first significant problem is Tom Piper's minimalist set - metal walls at the back and a single cube room in the middle which has to double as far too many different places. Apart from a bizarre moss back curtain for the Lawrence's cell scenes there's no sense of contrast in wealth or location to reflect anything in the text. Frequently members of the cast have to rotate the cube or move the very occasional piece of furniture or prop in a way that doesn't fit with their character. The cover image of the programme suggests there might have been a plan of setting it in a gritty urban cityscape, but the set pretty completely fails to realise this - that cover image of the lovers embracing is far more evocative of a world than pretty much anything in the visuals of the actual production.