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.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Samson at the Usher Hall, or, An Evening of HIP Handel

I'm generally a fan of Handel's operas and oratorios, and I was also looking forward to hearing the Dunedin Consort for the first time, especially after the recent furore over the cuts to their funding (later I think reversed). This was a very strong evening, though I still retain some personal doubts about aspects of historically informed performance.

This typically epic oratorio follows the Biblical story of Samson. Strikingly, though, much of that saga has taken place by the time the work opens. Samson has thus already been betrayed by Dalila, had his hair shorn, and is languishing in prison. The bulk of the three acts here are therefore concerned with everybody's lamentations about this and worrying about what is going to happen next, until Samson finally pulls down the Philistine temple (off-stage) in Act III. There are thus some issues with dramatic tension. It was interesting to compare this with Saul, which I saw at Glyndebourne last week. But in addition the emotional dilemmas of the characters are less compelling than in, say, a Handel opera like Ariodante. In this performance, a decision was also taken to retain the many lengthy recitatives. I wasn't wholly convinced by this - there are some nice moments, but the text adapted from Milton amongst others is not the best Handel ever set, the music is not particularly interesting, and these sections further slow up the dramatic momentum.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Autobiography at the Festival Theatre, or, And the Connection with the Human Genome?

In advance of this show I had high hopes after the powerful experience of McGregor's Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet last year. Unfortunately this new commission is not in the same league.

According to Uzma Hameed's programme note "a library of movement material has been generated...to reflect the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome - refracted and abstracted through McGregor's choreographic processing". What this in practice means is a sequence of 23 movements - I think, they are not performed chronologically and I didn't bother to check them all off - with short titles starting with "avatar" and including such things as "sleep", "nurture" and "scenes from nature".

Monday, 13 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Hocus Pocus at the Studio, or, The Problem of Dispensing with Text

One of the EIF innovations of recent years has been to include a show or two for children. I've now seen a couple of these - Dragon back in 2015 and this show. Obviously I'm not the target audience but, that said, I found this ultimately a little thin.

The show, devised by Philippe Saire with Philippe Chosson and Mickael Henrotay-Delaunay collaborating on the choreography, is comparatively simple in style. Two dancers (Henrotay-Delaunay and Ismael Oiartzabel) perform a series of scenes lit only by two strip lights placed horizontally a little way off the ground to create a square viewing space.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Lehman Trilogy at the National, or, American Dreams...American Nightmares

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Thursday 26th July 2018.

This show is full of things that in other contexts I've hated - long sections of descriptive narration, projections, gimmicky staging ticks. Here they all work, supported by extraordinary versatile acting from the three performers to create a beguiling and ultimately rather sad American history.

The show, adapted by Ben Powers from the original Italian, tells the story of the Lehman Brothers firm from its creation by three German Jewish immigrants in a small room in Montgomery Alabama, with a door handle that sticks, to its demise in a tower of glass in New York City.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

The Band's Visit on Broadway, or, Too Late for Love?

As I stood opposite the box office, waiting to see if there was going to be a cancellation freeing up two tickets, I wondered whether the effort was really worthwhile. This show turned out to be the theatrical highlight of my New York trip.

Based on a 2006 Israeli film the show follows the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Band as they take the wrong bus and end up in an obscure town in the middle of Israel where nothing ever happens. Just about every character in this show is in some way lost. The unexpected collision of people becomes a means of forcing them to open up - an opening in which, just maybe, fragile hope for the future can be glimpsed in a word, in a wave.

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 d├ęcor 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.