Sunday, 4 November 2018

Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, or, A Problem with Rewriting Shakespeare

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 27th October 2018.

This was my third Shakespeare in almost as many weeks, and the second to attempt a re-conception of the play (this time a version imported from New York City's Public Theater). In this case the action is cut down to 90 minutes, and much of the text is replaced by new songs with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. This reimagining turns out to have many admirable qualities, which makes the flaws the more frustrating.

This adaptation mercifully keeps the plot intact and supported by a generally strong cast there are certain things directors Kwame Kwei Armah and Oskar Eustis manage better than any Twelfth Night I've seen. In particular, the double characters of Viola and Cesario, and convincingly portraying Cesario as a man. The idea that Viola is imitating her brother is clever, and it surprises me that this route doesn't occur to more directors. Gabriella Brooks is completely convincing in disguise, in a way that few Violas manage. The only snag here is one of those failings to think the whole piece through - the manner in which Viola is briefly portrayed at the very outset doesn't quite marry up with her later representation of herself - we're supposed to think of her as insecure and vulnerable, but that first appearance has a bit too much confidence about it for this to be wholly convincing.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Synthesising Bach with Peter Gregson

A few weeks ago someone gave what seemed a very silly answer on University Challenge. For what keyboard instrument, asked Jeremy Paxman, did J S Bach originally compose his Goldberg Variations? The first wrong guess, albeit not absurd, was the organ. After all, Bach wrote a lot of music for the organ. My Hurford box set weighs in at 17 discs. After a few moments and a come on, someone from the other team buzzed in and guessed: synthesiser. Paxman gave the withering response he reserves for when students get an arts question a few hundred years out; I, and, I imagine, many other classical music fans, shouted at the screen loudly enough that my brother came into the room to ask what the matter was. But after I was done railing against the ignorance on display, I started to wonder if it was really such a stupid answer. After all, along with just about everything short of the kitchen sink, Uri Caine’s take on the Goldberg Variations probably does feature a synthesiser or two somewhere. (I can’t find a definitive list online and my CD copy is currently in storage).



Perhaps the student in question was, like me, a fan of Peter Gregson who has recently been mixing Bach with synthesisers. I’ve been enjoying his work from his impressive debut album Terminal, to his more recent strings and synths mashup Quartets Two.

Measure for Measure at the Donmar, or, Regrettable Repetition

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sat 13th October 2018.

The first half of this play has many powerful moments, the second half goes off the rails in ultimately troubling ways.

For Act 1 director Josie Rourke condenses Shakespeare's play into a swift moving spare period drama while at the same time managing to find powerful topicality. When Isabella (Hayley Atwell) threatens to expose Angelo's (Jack Lowden) advances and he dismisses her contemptuously with "Who would believe you?" it feels chillingly contemporary. Rourke also finds great resonance in small silent moments. The Provost (a lovely performance by Adam McNamara) bringing water to Isabella and, one senses, seeking through this act forgiveness for his silence in the face of Angelo's behaviour, and being rejected. Mariana (Helena Wilson) reaching out beseechingly for Isabella's hand, begging her to kneel to save her husband's life - when their hands clasp and Isabella kneels it is powerfully moving. In general Wilson makes a lot, like McNamara, of a small part. Elsewhere there's fine mocking commentary from Matt Bardock's Lucio and a nicely played slow undermining of his own authority by Nicholas Burns as the Duke.  Sule Rimi's Claudio has good presence but a tendency to rush delivery.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Paul Bunyan at Wilton's Music Hall, or, Shall America Fail?

Regular readers will know how strong an advocate of this musical theatre piece I am. It remains outside the regular repertoire, and, as a result for me each new production carries burdens. On the one hand it's always a source of excitement and anticipation to think of hearing the work live again. On the other, I worry that directors will unnecessarily mess about with it, that it won't convince others who don't know it that it's a fine piece, that I'll be disappointed. Reading the reviews it was clear a good many critics retain doubts, but I thought this was a fantastic show, one of the best pieces of work I've seen from ENO in some time.

As with the ETO production (you can read my review here) a few years back there's a make do tone to the production, which fits the piece well. Although there are some challenges involved in the Wilton's venue, the general ambience seems a good fit. There's a few hints of furniture in the main playing area, a very cleverly conceived site office level with the balcony, and otherwise props and fine characterisations do the work of bringing this world to life. Often, and clearly partly to accommodate the forces required in the limited space, chorus spread out to surround the audience. Although the sound is sometimes a bit overwhelming, it is also powerfully moving in great choral moments like the climax of the Prelude or "Lost, lost is the world I knew." It also meant, that at least where I was in the stalls, the individual choral lines came out with a striking clarity - particularly in the Prologue. Holding it all together under these conditions must require enormous focus from everybody concerned, and the fact that pretty uniformly they do is highly impressive, with particular credit due to Matthew Kofi Waldren on the podium. Altogether Waldren and his Chorus and Orchestra give a powerful, dramatic, moving reading of this wonderful score.

The Second Violinist at the Barbican, or, A Strange Reluctance to Set the Text

The day after this performance I was booked to see the ENO production of Britten's Paul Bunyan at Wilton's Music Hall. After this performance I expected an interesting juxtaposition. It often seems to be questioned whether Paul Bunyan with its unseen, non-singing narrator and sequence of numbers rather than through composition is an opera. Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's The Second Violinist is described as "a new opera" in the programme, but the limited amount of actual singing seems to me to raise questions.

I previously encountered this pairing in their first opera The Last Hotel, performed at the EIF in 2015, and about which I had reservations. Overall I got more out of this second attempt, but it remains flawed - particularly in terms of really engaging me emotionally - a familiar problem for recent new operas I've seen (Ades's Exterminating Angel was a notable exception).

Sunday, 26 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Home at the King's Theatre, or, In the Shadow of Taylor Mac

Geoff Sobelle's new theatre piece is in a long standing International Festival tradition. Take a performer or company who have been successful on the Fringe (usually award winning) and give them a larger budget to make an EIF show. This approach has, in recent times produced some real duds - Anything that Gives off Light and Leaving Planet Earth come to mind. In advance of this show I wasn't very optimistic, having not been wowed by Sobelle's recent award winning Fringe show The Object Lesson. As it turns out this is a better show than that, but it still suffers from what are, for me, familiar flaws, and in one particular area it was overshadowed by comparison to my extraordinary experience at Taylor Mac's LIFT show back in June.

Sobelle's aim with this show is to explore the meaning of "home". After a preamble of one-man wall construction we have a sequence of very impressive illusions (consultant Steve Cuiffo) enabling people to appear and disappear in doorways and from a bed - it's beautiful to watch. This is followed by the construction of a two-story house (excellently designed by Steven Dufala), much of it before our eyes in which first the ensemble and then large numbers of the audience interact in a sequence of events likely to happen in houses - graduations, funerals, parties, parent-child and spousal arguments and domestic repairs. Finally at the end, the human presence fades away and the house is again something between derelict and construction site. Atmosphere is heightened by often vivid lighting effects - particularly of different times of day beyond the house - by Christopher Kuhl, and a less convincing soundtrack sometimes performed onstage by Elvis Perkins looking as if he's wandered out of a Wes Anderson film.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

EIF 2018 - La Cenerentola at the Festival Theatre, or, Mr Herheim Thinks It's All a Joke

There is an ensemble maybe two thirds of the way through Act 1 when the main characters sing about being confused and unable to believe what is happening. In the context of the plot this is a reaction to Don Magnifico's claim that his third daughter (Cinderella) is dead. In Stefan Herheim's knockabout comedy version (which rarely made me laugh) this is played as a mockery of the audience. The house lights come up, an image of the audience is projected behind the ensemble, and they direct the remarks at us. I've got news for Herheim, I'm afraid I wasn't confused, I had a pretty fair idea what I thought about proceedings and it was not complimentary.

One of the maddening things about this show is there is the kernel of a good idea visible. That is that a contemporary cleaning lady is imagining the whole drama. But the execution is significantly flawed. We are given absolutely no indication of her life, beyond the fact she is a cleaner. Everything else that happens on stage appears to be the product of her imagination (though there is also an argument that the whole thing is being dreamed up by the ghost of Rossini). Either way the effect is that it never feels as if anything is really at stake in this drama - we don't know enough about the cleaning lady to care whether she's fantasising or not, and given that it appears to be all a fantasy I never cared what happened to any of the characters in the fantasy. I assume that Herheim thinks the whole thing is a farce. There are certainly farcical elements to it, but that is simply not the whole story of the piece. Had it made me laugh I might have felt differently about it, but while others clearly found the whole thing a hoot, I'm afraid I rarely found it funny.

EIF 2018 - Midsummer at the Hub, or, A Fine Romance

Regular readers will know that I have concerns about the increasing Scottish content of a Festival that calls itself International. They will also know that I do not think this issue is being discussed with the critical rigour it deserves by the professional Scottish arts press. A result of these twin points is that I tend these days to arrive at performances in this strand at the Festival in a not particularly friendly mood. Last night this was compounded by the fact that I'd booked to see this at 10pm, I'd already seen three shows earlier in the day, and I was feeling pretty tired. It speaks very well for this show that it pretty much converted me.

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre's play with songs tells the story of the meeting of Bob (Henry Pettigrew) and Helena (Sarah Higgins) in an Edinburgh pub on Midsummer weekend. For this version (the show was originally at the Traverse in 2008) it has apparently been reframed into a four hander with the narrative of the original meeting now mediated through the recollections of it and the stories they tell about it of an older Helena (Eileen Nicholas) and Bob (Benny Young).

Friday, 24 August 2018

EIF 2018 - The Prisoner at the Lyceum, or, A Thin Narrative about the Consequences of Incest

This was my first encounter with the legendary theatre director Peter Brook. I'm afraid on the basis of this show I found it difficult to see why he is so highly regarded.

The text of this 70 minute show, written by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne appeared to me to be set in Africa (though the mixed nationalities of the ensemble confuses this). It is intermittently framed by a white narrator (Donald Sumpter). The thin story concerns a boy (Hiran Abeysekera) who kills his father because he discovers he is sleeping with his sister (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). He is beaten by his uncle (Herve Goffings) but, for reasons unclear, this beating doesn't render sufficient punishment and the uncle then persuades the unseen local judge that instead of locking the boy up he should be told to sit on a hilltop overlooking the prison. There, despite being free to leave at any time, his own conscience or spirit will compel him to stay until he knows he has completed his punishment.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Dvorak's Requiem at the Usher Hall, or A Festival Special

When the programme was announced back in March this rarity was one of the more interesting items in an Usher Hall line up which as in recent years continues to play it fairly safe. It proved to be one of the highlights of the Festival so far.

I'd previously heard Dvorak's St Ludmila at the Festival back in 2002 and that had proved to be an unfairly neglected work, though I think it has only reappeared in the UK once since. I don't think the Requiem is quite such a strong piece, it is, apart from anything else, a little in Verdi's shadow. But there are lots of strong elements to it, and Jakub Hrusa led his forces expertly to make the best possible case for it.

EIF 2018 - The Beggar's Opera at the Kings, or, Savagely Satirical? If Only It Were

I have a soft spot for The Beggar's Opera. More years ago now than I care to remember I played Peachum in a school production with a band led by the chemistry teacher who was also a harpsichord player. However, having now seen two productions I'm coming to the conclusion that it may be one of those shows it's more fun to be in than to actually watch.

This "new version" by Ian Burton and Robert Carsen makes a not terribly convincing attempt to update the action to the present day. The updating to my mind never wholly harmonises with the period music (and the Covert Garden staging of the Britten version had the same problem) - I never really quite believed that these hardened criminals would stop to sing to the accompaniment of the harpsichord and archlute. The revision of the spoken text consists of the standard high volume of swearing (which equally as usual quickly loses impact through overuse), references to contemporary drugs and sexual practices, and a few feeble jokes about Brexit, immigration, and other current matters of debate. The whole approach has a somewhat strained feel of grown ups trying to show they are still down with the kids. The alterations to the sung lyrics are more bizarre - I know these pretty well - and I was at a loss to account for some of the changes - for example why substitute "death" for "fate" or "leaving" for "quitting". The changes only fitfully to my mind made the lyrics more comprehensible to a modern audience, and at other times seemed to leave unchanged things that struck me as obscure, but in any case I'm not convinced of the argument put forward by Jeremy Barlow in his programme note that Gay's "meaning is often hard to grasp." To my mind the plot and the issues at stake are pretty clear in the original despite occasional archaic language.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

EIF 2018 - La Maladie de la Mort at the Lyceum, or, Here We Go Again

The increasing portability of the film camera is one of the curses of modern theatre. It has enabled this vogue for indifferent films masquerading as staged plays. This show, directed by Katie Mitchell about whose high reputation I remain unconvinced after several encounters, is the latest in what, from where I have been sitting, has been a pretty consistently dismal line of shows (see for other recent examples Ivo van Hove's Kings of War and Network).

This entry breaks no new ground technically. There is a two roomed set of a hotel room and corridor in which most of the action takes place - it is rarely possible to view this action directly because walls are often moved into place to partially obscure it, but nor is it possible to simply watch the film and ignore the camera operators and other technical staff as they scurry about. Above this sits the screen on which the filmed action is projected. There's also a lit booth on the left occupied by the narrator (Irene Jacob) - yes this show also boasts a narrator who spends much time telling us how we should interpret the filmed action.