Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History (The First Act) at the Barbican, or, A Rather Extraordinary Evening


Note: A review of the performance on Friday 29th June 2018.

If you'd told me at 7.35pm last Friday evening as, disgruntled, I watched the audience continue to trickle nonchalantly in (the advertised start time of this three hour show was 7.30pm) that some two and a half hours later I'd have a supporting cast member sitting beside me pretending to be drunk while I patted his hand and Taylor Mac sang a lullaby and, more importantly, that I'd be finding this conceit touching rather than annoying I doubt I'd have believed you. But so it was. Regular readers will know I'm not a fan of immersive theatre – that this show, which is full of it, gradually drew me into it tells you how remarkable a piece of theatre this is.


This performance is the first three hours of a twenty four hour marathon, exploring the history of the United States since 1776 through its popular music. Originally staged as a non-stop 24 hour performance in New York City it has been broken down into a variety of other increments around the world. According to Taylor Mac the plan is to stage it in London in increments (a segment every year or every two years were both mooted). On the strength of this episode there's no question in my mind that the rest should come over.

Monday, 2 July 2018

The RSC Imperium Plays in the West End, or, Historical Parallels?

Note: A review of the double bill on Thursday 28th June 2018.

Last Thursday I took the day off to catch Mark Poulton's two part adaptation of Robert Harris's Cicero novels. It proved to be gripping drama, superbly performed by a typically fine RSC ensemble and with much to say about our current politics (both in Britain and across the pond).

Poulton/Harris track the decline and fall of the Roman Republic from the days of the Catiline conspiracy to the rise of Octavian/Augustus, through the eyes of Cicero (Richard McCabe) and his slave and biographer (Tiro). The play is centrally concerned with how you construct workable governments and it explores the problems/limitations which beset both republic and dictatorship. We might like to think the former is obviously preferable, but its flaws are ruthlessly exposed. In the early stages, watching the ambitious men competing for office I was reminded of the American founders forever pretending (Jefferson was a master at this, particularly when it's come to the historians) that they didn't really want office. Here the nakedness of power lust is often striking - “It was my turn!” complains Joe Dixon's blunt Catiline. Nor as these often unsavoury men struggle to best each other are the plays especially kind to the mass of the people – waiting to be swayed by the next demagogue who can persuade them with a clever speech, or silence them with the threat of violence.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar, or, A Regrettable Absence of Subtlety

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 25th June 2018.

There's an early sign that all is not well with this adaptation of Muriel Spark's classic novel, and it appears on Lia Williams's first entry as Miss Brodie. She's costumed in a skin tight crimson dress. This stands out overly conspicuously in the otherwise grey to black décor of just about everything else. Clearly Miss Brodie is supposed to be distinctive but this carries matters too far, especially when coupled with the exaggerated, mannered delivery which Williams adopts. Very quickly I found this irritating rather than compelling, and the devotion she has to inspire in “her girls” simply didn't make sense in this context.

As this slow-paced evening went on it became clear to me that this initial costume decision is linked to wider problematic choices in the production as a whole. The novel is set in Edinburgh, and David Harrower's adaptation has retained many of the specific references – but there is little sense of place in Lizzie Clachan's bland set of a couple of concrete walls and half a dozen wooden chairs. Nor was I ever really convinced that the streets of Edinburgh, a city where I lived for over ten years, were present off-stage. The sense of time is similarly problematic. Again the script is very specific – we are in the interwar period – but the staging does nothing to really convince that this is when we are. Given that a crucial plot point hinges on that timing this is another significant issue.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Madame Butterfly at Glyndebourne, or, Foreshadowings of Trump

Note: A review of the performance on Sunday 24th June 2018.

Oddly enough, given my many years of opera going, I'd only seen this repertory staple once before, a Royal Opera House revival something like six years ago. It hadn't particularly stuck in my memory. Consequently, I was surprised by the power of this revisiting, especially the disturbing contemporary parallels.

I had forgotten, in the intervening time, just how bleak a portrait of the United States and its imperial tendencies this opera is. Part of the power comes musically from the interweaving of the Star Spangled Banner – which feels satirical. Part of it, in this production, comes from the film sequence (by Ian William Galloway) inflicted on the line of Japanese brides in Act 1 – looking at the Statue of Liberty on screen I found it impossible not to think of the mockery of that symbol by the current administration. But the text itself is filled with a sense of troubling, dangerous American arrogance – from Pinkerton's casual, careless attitude to his marriage at the beginning through to Kate Pinkerton's “We still get the child?” line at the end – a moment which again, in light of the events in the States in the past week, has a real horror.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Reflections on an Accidental US Race Relations Double Bill

Last Saturday I spent the day seeing two new works on the theme of American race relations – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's deconstruction of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (transferred to the NT's Dorfman from the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond) and Anna Deavere Smith's one woman show Notes from the Field, playing the Royal Court as part of LIFT 2018. The accidental comparison proved instructive.

Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon starts unpromisingly. An actor (Ken Nwosu) playing the playwright comes on and proceeds to detail his problems in writing the play. While the author does have a fresh angle on this (the particular challenges of being, or trying to be, a black playwright) this didn't finally justify the reuse of what is, as far as I'm concerned, an over familiar and ineffective device – that is the device of worrying to the audience about how to start the play (most recently in evidence at the start of The Inheritance). Why contemporary playwrights so often show this aversion to just getting on and telling the story escapes me. 

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Aldeburgh Festival 2018, or, Notes from the Opening Weekend


Note: A belated report on performances over the weekend of 8th-10th July 2018.



A visit to the Aldeburgh Festival has become a regular fixture in my summer calendar. On this occasion I was especially looking forward to hearing John Wilson's partnership with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and finally, hearing his own Orchestra live. I also caught the new opera by Emma Howard.


The best of the weekend was to be found in the two orchestral concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings, marrying up, with one exception, a set of works by Britten and American composers written in 1940-1 or (in the case of the Grimes Sea Interludes soon afterwards). These couplings brought out striking connections in musical language, affording the opportunity to hear afresh the Sea Interludes in particular.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Inheritance at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Note: This is a review of the performances of both parts on Saturday 5th May 2018.

The reviews (with a couple of exceptions), the social media comments, and the standing ovation last Saturday night all tell a similar story of high praise for this new two part play. I was far from convinced, as I shall try to explain.

My principal issues relate to the text itself. The problems start at the beginning. We are confronted with a group of young men who appear to be in some sort of writing class, dreaming they are being advised by the ghost of E.M. Forster, who are wringing their hands because they don't know how to tell their story. New work is replete with similar instances of this kind of thing and, personally, I loathe it. Just get on and tell the damn story, decide how you're going to start and do it – don't inflict your indecision about how to do so on me. As far as I'm concerned it undermines suspension of disbelief from the beginning by deliberately pointing up the artificiality of theatre.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Present Laughter at Chichester, or, What is Miss Erikson doing??

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 30th April 2018.

There was a fair bit in the first half of this revival which made me stare, and not in a good way. But the most revealing about what has gone wrong was Miss Erikson's silly walk. This was presumably intended to be hilarious, I just found it baffling. It sets the tone for what follows.

I previously saw this play when the National Theatre revived it in 2007 with Alex Jennings in the lead and directed by the late, much missed Howard Davies. I remember it as being often very funny, but also possessing point and heart. Sean Foley's new version at Chichester is, sadly, none of these things. The dominant theme of the production is physical comedy. Occasionally this is quite funny – but nearly all the gags are victims of being overly repeated – it is indicative that one of the funnier moments in the performance I saw was an ad-lib to retrieve a hat, and even then I've seen funnier ad-libs. I suspect the reason for this approach is that Foley doesn't trust the text. He may even be contemptuous of Coward and the world he depicts (there is a suggestion of that in the exaggerated upper class accents deployed by several members of the company). The text is actually full of pointed lines which depend on nuanced delivery to really strike home and draw the laugh – I have the impression Foley has not encouraged this. Indeed, the very opposite – the majority of the text is delivered at pretty much the same level. Similarly, these characters are actually funnier if they retain a degree of reality – but they are all reduced so much to caricature here that I lost interest in them as people and consequently lost interest in their repeated pratfalls.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Absolute Hell at the National, or, Voices from the Edge of the Abyss

My only previous encounter with director Joe Hill-Gibbins was his frankly dreadful production of Edward II in the Olivier. As a result, I was not particularly optimistic about this in advance. To my surprise it proved to have much to commend it.

The work itself clearly merits revival – I dissent here from quite a few professional reviewers. It's a powerful ensemble piece set in Soho on the verge of the 1945 Labour election victory. Although the cast of characters is very large, and many get only a limited time on stage, I found the ambiguities of the writing intriguing not annoying and I never felt the text needed to do more to flesh them out. Even in the smaller cameos it always gives us just enough to interest and convince. On the whole it doesn't feel overlong (certainly not in comparison to the recent similar marathon of John in the Dorfman), though I did feel Ackland struggled a bit with an ending.

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.

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.