It was clear something was up with ENO’s Kismet when choreographer Javier de Frutos was fired last week. But tonight’s press night showed just how considerable was the disaster he left behind. With one caveat: Michael Ball should be wholly disassociated from what follows. He performed superbly, and made a valiant but ultimately unavailing effort to rescue this lamentable production.
Kismet is a weak show to begin with. The faux eastern tunes are mostly recycled Borodin and lack that certain something. The book is plodding. The only way this show can be done is with big eastern spectacle, plenty of over the top dancing, beautiful, scantily clad maidens, and a principal cast with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. It should look big at all points – lush settings, a cast of thousands, looking like a Baghdad mob, a horde of dangerous but slightly camp soldiers, and a bevy of beautiful maidens. It may begin to give some idea of quite what a disaster this ENO production is if I say that to all intents and purposes it possessed none of these things.
Yes there was a cast of thousands. But I have never seen a cast of thousands so tediously doing nothing for number after number. I kid you not. Scene after scene, 20-30 chorus members wandered lackadaisically onstage, stood around, sung a few lines often feebly (the chorus only reached a decent volume once in the night during the Act 2 Finale) and then wandered off again. There was really very little point in having them there. In addition to them were three dancers (the foreign princesses) who were seriously lacking in the precision one would expect from dancers in a west end show, and a collection of half a dozen young men, probably supposed to be eunuchs, who got what little choreography there was going but whose demeanour for the vast majority of their time on stage suggested that they were still in the rehearsal studios in Walthamstow waiting for the session to start rather than in an Arabian night.
This wasted cast of thousands was abetted by the god awful set. For example, the script calls for a Hanging Gardens of Babylon type affair for the hero and heroine to meet and fall in love in. Think luscious groves, sparkling fountains, trellises, mulberry trees etc. etc. Instead, we had a flat red wall, with an open circle in the centre painted to look like some kind of fruity garland, in the centre of which stood our two lovers like planks of wood and sang.
The staging was even worse when required to accommodate the wasted cast of thousands. An excellent example of its problems was the big number in the harem in Act 2. Now remember that the ENO stage is huge, specifically designed one would think for this kind of entertainment. Now imagine that somebody had slammed a great red flat across the stage about a third of the way in. Inside this is a bathroom sized space, further reduced by benches that would not be out of place in a doctor’s waiting room, from which you descend to the remaining third of the stage by a half stage width staircase (taking up even more of that third). In other words there is hardly any of the stage for anybody to be on, just when the scene is crying out for a bit of Carry on up the Khyber style dancing. And what duly happened? Faith Prince and Michael Ball were trapped for most of one of the liveliest numbers of the show in this tiny space at the top of the staircase, while dancers writhed on the steps as if they had swallowed poison (rather than some fantasy inducing drug) and were about to expire en masse. I wanted to scream.
What then can one say for the principals. Michael Ball was the show’s major saving grace. It bears repeating that his performance is excellent, bringing vital energy to the proceedings, and he is to be pitied for being stuck in this dross for another month. Faith Prince has the weaker character and does her best with it. She gets the occasional funny line, but absolutely no help from director or choreographer (the harem scene and her Act 1 entrance were crying out for big dance numbers and on each occasion she was pinned to the side of the stage). Graeme Danby as the Wasir made the most of his biggest number, “Was I, Wasir”, which was almost funny – but needed to ham it up more all the way through. And while we’re on the subject of that number it again made you want to shoot the choreography team. I have been in many amateur theatrical productions. It is one of the easiest things in the world to make eight men prancing around in eastern costumes, holding swords, into a really funny number. You don’t have to be Einstein, and the men don’t have to be capable dancers. I repeat I have seen it done on numerous occasions, and done in a short amount of rehearsal time. In other words the last minute replacement of the choreographer is no excuse. Instead it is clear here, and elsewhere in this show, that the replacement made no attempt where an attempt might have been made. I appreciate that 70 strong casts can’t have wholly new choreography done in a day, but eight people can. But it was not to be. They walked on, they walked off. I despaired.
Somebody at ENO must have thought this was a good idea. But one can only assume the management is still under the control of fools who do not think these things through. By all means stage a show that nobody else is going to stage. But bear in mind there are almost certainly very good reasons why that is the case and act accordingly. If you are going to hire the hot new choreographer on the scene, it may be a good idea to discover whether his style will actually suit the show. It may have been permissible a year ago to take the risk, it is crazy if no one in the show went to see his Cabaret when it opened in October, and it is inexcusable if the management saw the show and still kept him working on this production. I saw Cabaret at Christmas and it was blatantly apparent that this choreographer has his own way that takes no account of setting or music (How he won an Olivier remains a mystery to me). A disaster was eminently predictable. Next we come on to the direction, by all means hire a famous American, but consider whether he has any relationship with the choreographer and, more seriously, whether he has ever had to handle a company this size (his biog and the quality of the performance suggests he has not). The production team had the presumption to take a bow. They should have been booed off the stage. I certainly tried.
I grew up going to the opera at ENO. I love the company, I love the Coliseum, and I want to see both survive. But this is a prime example of the kind of idiocies they have been prone too since firing Nicholas Payne and losing Paul Daniel. Edward Gardner has the talent to rescue them musically, it remains to be seen if the management has the capacity to be rescued. On this showing it does not look promising.