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.

Monday, 20 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Xenos at the Festival Theatre, or, The Importance of Narrative

I'd had high hopes of this show in advance based on the reviews and social media commentary. There's no question that Akram Khan is a remarkable dancer. There are also a number of arresting images. But in the end, despite the subject matter, for much of the performance I remained emotionally at a distance.

The subject matter is actually less clearly reflected in the dance than might be imagined. There is one overt reference - a song about the battalion hanging on the old barbed wire - and quite a number of coded ones - but the First World War setting is less concrete than I'd expected. The structure is also episodic - presumably intended to reflect the confusing experience of the Indian servicemen but for this viewer the piece suffered from the lack of a clear narrative. Episodes include the barbed wire one already referred to, the laying of communication wire, and the ever-present threat of death.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Ringstad and Meier at the Queen's Hall, or, A Refreshingly Diverse Programme

After three years when post-1945 classical music has been conspicuous by its thin representation in Festival programming, after the transformative work of Jonathan Mills, this year has seen a slight up-tick. It's also seen something of a return to the Mills practice of encouraging mixed programmes which I think, by their number, did help to build up an audience willing to risk the occasional new work as opposed to when I first started attending the Festival, when such a work in a programme was usually guaranteed to drastically reduce the audience, even for major visiting orchestras.

On paper, and despite the more unusual instrumental soloist (viola as opposed to the more regular piano or violin) I'd have hoped to see a larger audience for this programme - given the inclusion of crowd pleasers like Tartini's Devil's Trill and and Ysaye's Caprice d'apres l'Etude en forme de valse de Saint-Saens. But it was a stronger audience than might have been seen for a programme with a world premiere in the McMaster era.

Friday, 17 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Hansel und Gretel at the Usher Hall, or, A Slice of Faerie

After nearly thirty years of regular opera-going it's getting rarer for me to encounter a work I haven't previously seen or heard. But this was one such occasion. In advance, I wasn't expecting a great deal - one of the reasons I hadn't previously heard this work was that family opinion towards it was not favourable. But it seems to me if done in the right spirit, as this performance unquestionably was, it's a piece which is a lot of fun.

The opera is a concise rendering in three short acts of the familiar fairy tale, ending up with the witch vanquished by being shoved into her own oven - in principle a fairly gruesome moment but not one on which the work dwells. There are clear Wagnerian overtones to the score, and I also thought anticipations of some of the natural world elements of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. But I rather like those sound worlds, so this didn't bother me. The score has a nice range from fun (particularly in the witch's music), to beauty (Sandman/Dew Fairy) and drama (the Witch's Ride) - all of which were brought vividly to life by the RSNO in fine form, under the expert dramatic command of Andrew Davis.