Sunday 26 August 2007

Still got that magic

Wednesday 15th brought a packed Usher Hall to hear Alfred Brendel in recital. He played a Haydn sonata, Beethoven's op.110 (which was magical), two Schubert impromtus and Mozart's sonata K457 (and received a standing ovation from the young boy in the row in front - who was rather better behaved than his parents). Brendel's playing was magical, and impressive for his age, though this is now starting to show slightly. One cannot help but feel that some of his pauses are less for dramatic effect and more for memory.

But any quibbles are minor, he is still enthralling, and his ability to make the huge Usher Hall fell like an intimate chamber venue is impressive. I think it likely I may pop over to Glasgow to hear him when he visits in February.

Since then, I've been so busy at the Fringe I've done nothing else at the international. In that context I've seen little that is of note musically. However, the other Thursday, after heading to the pub for a drink with several staff from the venue, we once again made our way to the jazz bar. There we heard the magnificent Tony Monaco Organ Trio (the organ in question being a hammond). They were wonderful - the range of tones and colours they produced and their quality as an ensemble (in some ways reminiscent of the unity of voice that Bill Evans' trio achieved in the early 60s).

Of the Fringe shows I've seen (though most will by now have finished), I can thoroughly recommend Plested and Brown's very silly (but most enjoyable) comedy Minor Spectacular and recommend you stay away from Diet of Worms on Melted Ice. The gimmick of a swimming pool is not sufficient to make up for lacklustre sketches and if I tell you there's one involving a farmer, a sack of grain, a fox and a chicken and another spoofing Quantum Leap, with Sam screaming "That's Ziggy's answer to everything!" after being advised to kiss the gangster who's trying to drown him, then you've seen the good bits. Mark Watson was very funny, as was Josi Long (Trying is Good) whose comedy was unusually nice, and deserves extra points for five minutes on Quakers.

I felt a little sorry for Vallimar Jensen who sung Ethel Waters wonderfully. Stuck in a slightly out of the way venue, which sounded like a herd of elephants lived above, and unfortunately listed in the theatre section of the programme as opposed to the musical theatre, she had a much smaller audience than she deserved.

Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe

I can't remember the last time I noticed programming this adventurous at the International festival, that at least was the thought that ran through my mind when I first saw these two concerts nestling on the first Monday and Tuesday of the festival. Actually, that isn't quite true. When the Cleveland Orchestra made their memorable visit in 2004, one of their three programmes consisted of two pieces by Birtwistle (The Shadow of Night and Night's Black Bird) to which, despite being paired with Schubert's great c major symphony, and there being nothing else on for it to compete against, almost nobody came. While Ades has a fair enough following in some quarters, particularly the Aldeburgh festival of which he is the director, and notable champions (such as Simon Rattle), he surely wouldn't be welcomed with open arms by the conservative festival audiences.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see the house somewhere between two thirds and three quarters full, this despite the fact we were hearing what was surely the Scottish premier of Ades' violin concerto (something I had been very much looking forward to since first hearing it on a radio broadcast from last year's Aldeburgh festival). Perhaps this is less surprising given the weight of 'safe' material in the programme. This began with a spirited reading of Beethoven's Namensfeier overture. They raced through it. Ades is an interesting conductor to watch, he didn't use a podium and so seemed to stand right in amongst the orchestra. He danced somewhat (but unlike some who do, his every move seemed to bring an intended response), indeed at times he jabbed his baton as if fencing with the players. It was a thrilling start.

This was followed by Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite. I shall confess now to not being the greatest fan of the composer, but they played it with great aplomb and it was enjoyable. However, the meat came after the interval. Anthony Marwood, for whom the concerto was composed, was the soloist. The work is short (around twenty minutes), yet much as Sibelius's seventh symphony, takes you on a far longer journey. The themes are circular - the three movements being named Rings, Paths and Rounds and this shows. It's a difficult piece to describe. It seems to tug you this way and that and while it isn't necessarily tuneful, if you let it, it washes over you and is utterly enthralling. Ades creates some lovely textures and colours. Soloist, orchestra and conductor played it wonderfully and left only one question: why has this not been recorded commercially. Indeed, Marwood's playing reminded me of the wonderfully captivating performance we had last year of Szymanowski's violin concerto from Frank Peter Zimmermann and the BPO under Rattle. We cheered loudly, but it did not meet with universal approval. Mr Flashlight, sitting next to us (so christened for his strange habit of reading the programme only after a piece had started, and then doing so with his small pocket torch) was not amused. He refused to clap and said loudly at the end that all modern music was rubbish. I wouldn't have minded so much, but he did have to be shushed during the concert - if you're reading this Mr Flashlight, you might not appreciate a work, but please allow those of us who do to enjoy it.

The programme finished with a favourite of mine: Sibelius's third symphony. Ades did not hang about, indeed, if anything, his pace was a little too frantic. However, the orchestra held together. It was a reading of marked contrasts, as when he did choose to slow down, the tempi were as broad as before they had been brisk. This was also not a cold reading (whether or not this is a good thing will be a matter of individual taste, personally, I love the icy chill to which Sibelius's music lends itself, but Ades convinced with his warmer take). The slow middle movement, where so many readings get lost, was played beautifully and Ades brought out the different musical lines well. The finale was thrilling, though he could have found a little more of the sort of sweep that someone like Davis brings. Mr Flashlight approved this time - that was more like it, he said (or something along those lines). Perhaps someone ought to point out to him that at one time, approximately a hundred years ago, this too was modern music and there was probably some stuffy figure reading his programme note with a candle and muttering about what a disgrace it was.

The following night the orchestra returned for a French programme. Again this was well sold (although, as it turned out, the programming was less adventurous). The concert began with Rameau, of whom I have never been a great fan, and his Les Indes galantes: Overture. Certainly it was enthusiastically played, and listening it confirmed in my mind that Michael Tumulty's complaint in the Herald against the previous evening's performance of blurred musical lines was nonsense. However, the work was, like other Rameau I have heard, rather samey and overstayed its welcome, as far as I was concerned. This was followed by Ades, though not really: his Three Studies after Couperin. This is the most accessible of his work I have heard (as it is tuneful), though Ades plays fast and lose with tempi and creates some lovely orchestrations. This is a charming piece, but I might have liked to hear something a little more daring.

The first half closed with Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete. Toby Spence sang beautifully and as is always a good sign, after a verse or so into the second song, I was so transported that I gave up following the words in programme. Ades made fine accompanist, the delicacy and precision that are hallmarks of his conducting serving him well. If anyone has a recommendation for a good recording, I would love to hear it. The second half was somewhat more disappointing, bringing us Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin and Bizet's symphony in C. Both were very well played, and diverting enough, but I can't help feeling that neither is a particularly great work and their absence from my CD collection is not a hole I am in any hurry to fill.

Some good things then, and a very worthwhile visit. I hope they return in the future, and perhaps with a slightly more adventurous programme.

An Evening of Terrible Cabaret or Come Back Kit and the Widow all is Forgiven

Okay. I can now officially declare that Festival 2007 is on a par with Festival 2004 for providing us with evenings of mind-numbing tedium. Festival 2004 brought us Le Soulier de Satin; The Composer, The Singer, the Cook and the Sinner and Orfeo and Eurydice. So far this year we have had Poppea; Mabou Mines Dollhouse and tonight, The Tiger Lillies.

When the Festival programme came out, I booked for this more in hope than in expectation. I have long thought a cabaret element to the official Festival would liven things up, but it was not to be. As with so many of these things, I left wondering what kind of genius it takes to put so many musicians on stage, use so many potentially exciting instruments (including the organ) and yet provide such dull musical fare.

This is the more surprising given the lengths the Festival went to to warn those buying tickets that “The Tiger Lillies have been known to use bad language, very bad language indeed” (EIF programme) and the man at the box office who warned me terribly earnestly that there was likely to be bad language and adult content at this event. You would therefore think that it must be exciting and shocking. But, like so much else at this year’s festival it was dull.

The first half was, according to the programme, meant to be The Tiger Lillies version of Orfeo. It began in bizarre fashion. The hall lights dimmed and the members of Concerto Caledonia proceeded gingerly on stage through the darkness, while those of us in the audience waited for the first crash and howl of anguish which would have indicated that a priceless 15th century instrument had been damaged beyond repair. They played an innocuous overture. There was another pause. Then a singer in white face rushed on. Ah, I thought, drama. But no, Keith Lewis sat down beside the piano and took us through several funereal verses. I cannot tell you what the song was about since there was no text in the programme, and his diction was dreadful. The music continued samey and dull. Another pause. Finally, The Tiger Lillies arrived wearing slightly odd fitting suits and hats. Pausing only to retrieve his hat from Lewis, and evict him from the piano stool, their lead singer (Martin Jacques) took up his place at the piano and continued with the same funereal like dirge. His diction was no better, and had I not known that the story was supposed to be Orfeo, I would have had little idea what it was supposed to be about – thus destroying at the first hurdle one of the primary points of setting words to music. And, oh dear, the music. It was like a kind of early music version of minimalism, but, unlike say the best works of John Adams, this was a minimalism that went nowhere. The two singers droned on, the drummer hit the same sequence on his drums, smoke billowed from a funny little funnel behind the harpsichord and the atmospheric lighting occasionally shifted. The only man who really looked as if he was having fun was Concerto Caledonia’s super lute player.

Eventually, after something like fifty minutes of this, David McGuinness (Concerto Caledonia's leader) left his harpsichord and ascended through the organ gallery to the Usher Hall organ. In one of the rare moments of audible text it had been indicated that demons were now to appear. At last, I thought, drama. But the organ only joined in with exactly the same chord progression at pretty nearly the same volume that the forces below had been churning out for the last near hour. And that was that. Up they got and off they went. So did we, in desperate search of the bar.

Part Two must, I suppose, have been intended to justify all the pre-performance claims about how shocking The Tiger Lillies are. To the ambient lighting was now added three coloured globes. Concerto Caledonia seemed to think they were in Hawaii and now sported a secession of awful brightly patterned shirts (possibly borrowed from the Festival Director’s informal wardrobe), ill-fitting jackets and the odd funny little hat. Martin Jacques now divided his time between accordion and piano. Words continued to be only intermittently audible, and mostly became audible whenever Jacques felt it was time to swear, which seemed to happen quite a bit. Presumably having a second rate cabaret artist leer out at the Usher Hall and declaim the word “fuck” seven or eight times is meant to be shocking. It was not. Here, as in the first half, was a repetition of the same problems. The music was dull, the texts platitudinous. Kit and the Widow have been doing this kind of smut for years on the Fringe. They sail equally near the bone with swearing, and references to such things as child molestation and the horrors of war. But they do it with specifics – whether singing about their own family experience, or attacking George W. Bush. The lyrics are inventive, biting. They have a point. The Tiger Lillies simply utter generic lines, with repetitive music that goes nowhere. The only variety comes from Jacques occasionally playing the piano with his heel, or bashing it with a black dildo which my friend noticed on the piano in the first half. Oh, and I suppose it may also be considered “entertainment” when the drummer haphazardly demolishes his drum kit and spends the next number trying to reconstruct it.

I paused to boo as loud as I could on leaving the hall, but greatest praise must go to a fellow audience member directly behind me in the stalls who, when Jacques, leering as usual, declared his audience “twats”, responded loudly: “So are you.” Jacques, and his third-rate ensemble probably thought they had shocked him – I think it much more likely he was as bored as I was.

Reflecting on it later, I was particularly struck by the barrenness of the texts. Alan Bennett hits this point precisely in Forty Years On with the line: "Don't swear boy, it shows a lack of vocabulary." The three groups mentioned in this review (Mabou Mines; Vienna Schauspielhaus; The Tiger Lillies) all seem to view the texts they use as something of little importance to the overall show. For me, that makes for an empty experience, and seems a worrying trend in performance. I can't help thinking again of the intelligence of Shaw's Saint Joan - addressing often similar issues of love, war and religion but so much more profoundly.

Since there was some laughter at all of these events perhaps we have to conclude that it is all meant to be an elaborate joke. Supposedly refreshing silliness after years of McMaster seriousness. And humour is, as previously observed, a very subjective thing. Alternatively, perhaps acts like Mabou Mines, Kosky and the Tiger Lillies were all Mills could get at short notice given the botched nature of the handover. This year, I am constrained to give him the benefit of the doubt on both points - though there has been only scattered laughter at any of these performances. But if these same people get return fixtures in the manner of Bieto, somebody should start asking hard questions about Mills’s quality control.

Saturday 25 August 2007

A Mesmerising Evening of Modern Ballet

I am not a balletomane. I usually find myself at the ballet, either because I’m being typically over-obsessive with regards to sampling the International Festival, or because my better half has insisted its time for our annual visit together. I went to the William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar (performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders) without especially high expectations. Its quality is best indicated by the fact that for I think the first time in my life I found myself bravoing a piece of modern dance.

The programme note is fascinating but enough to fill one with slight dread since it describes what sounds like an extreme case of postmodernist art, where there is not to be a connecting narrative, but rather “there is resonance.” (This was actually useful to me for research purposes as it clarified a post-modern history text I’d been wrestling with at work which is clearly based on this idea of resonance between texts but which is not written in as plain English as this programme (it is in fact written in the worst sort of lit-critese but that’s another story)). To get back to the show. What we have is four episodes, with the vaguely connected theme of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Scene One, “Potemkin’s Signature” is the most deconstructed of the four. We see fragmented scenes from a Spanish painting (women in full skirts and corsets) mingling with a corps de ballet, two school girls who seem to be overseeing and reporting on the whole project and in various poses all over the stage, St Sebastian. Forsythe makes clear his intentions from the outset. Where, in classical ballet, one tends to have a lot of stop/start dancing, and plenty of people wandering off and wandering back on, here the movement is fluid with exits and entrances as closely observed as the ‘dances’ themselves. The result is that the eye is constantly being drawn all across the stage, as groups move through full-scale numbers in the centre, while to the side the next group is sliding into position, and odd figures are scurrying around, or posing in the rest of the space. These multi-performances are perhaps the key to Forsythe’s brilliance – which only really becomes apparent when the whole ensemble for any scene is in action. Where most ballets have the corps in unison here you have at least five or six groups, closely entangled with each other yet moving completely differently. It is mesmeric.

This technique reaches its extraordinary culmination in Scene Two, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” The cluttered stage is swept clean and the opulent costumes are stripped off. Usually this kind of ensemble performance palls on me but not this time. Moving from solos to duos to ensembles, this was fluid, graceful yet sharp, high octane yet capable of slowing to a remarkable tenderness. It was exciting, moving and beautiful.

Scene Three, “The House of Mezzo-Prezzo,” changes the mood again. We are at an auctioning off of the various dancers, now all in gold painted suits. At the climax, the auctioneer having been trying to get money off us for the last ten minutes, makes a marvellous joke. You may be wondering, she suggests rhetorically, if this is all some ridiculous joke? Or an anticipation of future trends? I sincerely hope not, is the response. We are permitted to have fun. We don’t have to worry about the meaning. We can take from it what we want, and the main thing I took from it was the extraordinary virtuosity of these performers, the sheer excitement of watching them.

Scene Four, “Bongo Bongo Nageela” draws it all together. The stage is swept bare again and the entire company appear dressed something like St Trinians’ school girls. We have a repetition of the complexities of movement from the opening scene – and the sight of two concentric circles swirling round the stage was unforgettable.

Perhaps it was the tone of this that really made the difference. I could appreciate the moments of great artistry (especially in Scene 2). I could laugh at the man trying to cut a limb off with enormous gold scissors in Scene 1 and, most importantly of all, I didn’t spend the whole evening wondering what it all meant. It was allusive, suggestive, but not irritating. Above all the dancing remained at its heart, and the dancing was spell-binding. This contrasted sharply with the poor acting characteristic of both Poppea and Mabou Mines Dollhouse. Those other practitioners of deconstruction could learn much from this.

An Evening at the Modern Theatre or Sex, Nudity, and Ibsen performed by 'Allo 'Allo rejects

Last year I endured the three and a half hours of mind numbing tedium which was the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Three Sisters. Foolishly I imagined that it would take the International Festival some years to equal it. I could not have been more wrong. That experience has now been trumped by the equally interminable and just downright stupid Mabou Mines Dollhouse.

Imagine, if you will, that the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo have been hired to produce an Ibsen play. Or more specifically, that the actors in a production of Ibsen’s The Dolls House have received accent coaching from the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo. This was nearly three hours of performers speaking in ‘Allo ‘Allo style Scandinavian accents. It makes a mockery of the play, but sadly a mockery that is not funny but dull as ditchwater.

The performance takes place on a King’s Theatre stage enclosed by lavish red drapes. After the Chinese pianist (and trust me the fact that she is Chinese is of significance) has bowed and taken up her seat at the faux grand piano embedded in the stage (in fact a pitifully sounding keyboard with a fake piano lid) Nora and Kristine come rushing in and start erecting the show’s set.

This consists of one large room in a doll house. That is to say, you have diminutive flats forming a backdrop of walls in concertina style, over which (or through the various windows and doors) the various members of the company periodically appear. The two women start to deliver their lines in the aforementioned bizarre accents and with silly high-pitched screaming and generally bizarre pacing, while unpacking various bits of similarly diminutive furniture apparently intended as Christmas presents for the children’s dolls house. Without apparent motivation, they park, throw or drape themselves over various bits of furniture, manoeuvring it round the stage, or throwing it across it, or, occasionally, locking themselves in a large packing case at the far left of the stage. Just as the manner of delivering the dialogue makes it completely devoid of any emotional or intellectual impact, so the movement further renders the thing meaningless. However, it again bears stressing that this is not an amusing meaninglessness. It is simply empty. I marvelled at the sheer tedium and stupidity of it. I also marvelled at the fact that Torvald could ever have wanted to marry Nora. It was really impossible to understand why he had not thrown this extraordinarily childish, and silly accented woman out into the street some months before the curtain had even risen. Oh, did I mention that the maidservant is heavily pregnant, drops all the trays she ever brings on stage, and keeps swigging alcohol. Lord knows why. The whole is also accompanied by snatches of Grieg from our friend the Chinese pianist – the trouble here is that it can’t reinforce meaning that has been drained away, or create it from outside the mess on stage.

Eventually, just as it was dawning on me that, contrary to all sense, the performers intended to deliver the entire text in these ridiculous accents, the dwarfs playing the men (the main innovative selling point of this production) begin to appear. It is with their presence that the play most disappoints. About two years ago I saw an extraordinary film called The Station Agent in which the lead character is played by a dwarf. It’s a wonderfully moving exploration of his life. One of the reasons I went to this, is that I expected something similar to be done by the deployment of dwarfs here. Not at all. They are turned into a joke. But it is not a clever joke, not a joke which has something profound to say about gender relations or relative heights, or anything really. It’s slapstick and a bit pathetic. For example, a small minority of the audience seemed to find the dwarf Torvald and the tall (relatively) Nora rolling in ecstasy on the floor extremely funny. But the only reason I could see for finding this funny was if you assume there is something inherently funny in the idea of sexual chemistry between a very short man and a normal sized woman. For me, it was one of the depressingly few moments of genuine human connection in the play – there was nothing funny about it at all.

And so for about ninety minutes it went on with more of the same, culminating in a bizarre dream sequence. It appears to be Christmas. We know this because various people keep talking about presents and there’s a little Christmas tree being moved around the stage or behind which the evil lawyer hides for most of his first scene – again don’t ask me why, it was like most of this production obscure. In this sequence, Nora writhed around on the floor while her old nurse (looking suspiciously like the maidservant in a weird mask and silly wig), on stilts, loomed over the walls of the dolls house and spoke t..e..r..r..i..b…l…y slowly and ominously. Strobe lighting started, all the actors were writhing on the floor, snatches of dialogue were displayed on banners which were displayed then dropped onto the stage, and finally, thank god, the interval arrived.

Act 2 brought the sex and nudity. In spades. We began with Kristine giving the evil lawyer a blow job, pass through Torvald masturbating centre stage, and finish with Nora completely naked in one of the King’s Theatre boxes, singing some crazed modern aria to her abandoned half-naked husband as he hangs off the side of the proscenium arch. By this stage, the set has been changed into a theatre, with the back of the stage ringed with opera boxes filled with formally dressed couples moving in sympathy with the leading protagonists.

Incidentally, it would seem for some reason that while full frontal nudity of a woman is quite acceptable, full frontal nudity of a dwarf is not. Probably this was intended to say something terribly profound about gender relations. No doubt a wiser critic than I could say what that was.

In between there was a lot more ‘funny’ accents, writhing around, and a feeble joke about the Chinese which nearly causes the Chinese pianist to leave the stage. Her departure would not have been much of a loss but of course she cannot go since the dialogue cannot possibly be continued without its accompanying Grieg. Eventually, Nora stripped off in her box, vanished in a cloud of smoke, and Torvald ran through through the auditorium screaming for her – which given how obviously barking his wife was, was more than a little baffling.

The EIF brochure claims this production is “funny” and “profound.” For me it was yet another evening of tedium. It is increasingly my view that these directors who like to think they are so provocative are actually very feeble minded. These great works of art frighten them so severely that the only way they can come to grips with them is to tear them to pieces. This only ends up exposing the barrenness of their own imaginations. It would be nice to think that one day Arts Councils, Theatre Managers, Festival Directors, and critics are going to have the courage to expose this by not giving these people work, but I’m not holding my breath.

I have already noted (see earlier review of Poppea) that sex and nudity is now so common it is tiresome. But another point does bear repetition. It is becoming rare to go to a show where the development of the characters, their genuine creation on stage, is paramount. Instead they’re mocked, the text so disfigured that their emotional journeys become meaningless. Furthermore, at least some of McMaster’s hirings in the field of theatre direction knew how speech should be delivered on stage. With the exception of some of The Wooster Group I have yet to see any really fine spoken acting this festival. Jonathan Mills may perhaps console himself with the mistaken idea that he is shocking people. From where I’m sitting he is committing a much more serious crime, and for the second time this Festival, that of boring them.

The Bacchae...or The Alan Cumming Show

As a mad emperor (in Babylon 5) once remarked, “Humour is such a subjective thing.” For much of last night’s performance of The Bacchae, indeed from the very opening lines, there was a portion of the audience roaring with laughter. I was not among them.

This production, the flagship of Jonathan Mills’s theatre programme this year, is a clear example of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Mills has followed a McMaster habit (and doubtless one also followed by their predecessors) of poaching a big success from the previous year’s Fringe for the following year’s International Festival. In this case, that poaching consists of the National Theatre of Scotland and the creative team responsible for last year’s smash hit, Black Watch. In a shrewd move to assist the sale of tickets (which it has clearly done), Mills has also lured back Alan Cumming, appearing on the Scottish stage for the first time in years as the unrecognised God, Dionysus.

The enigma of this production comes from trying to explain what happened between these various collaborators in rehearsal, or, to put it another way, is what we see on stage really the full intention of director John Tiffany? This question has to be asked because for much of the time the show more resembles a kind of Alan Cumming stand up act, played fairly blatantly to the gallery, in which the tragedy of Pentheus and Thebes is but a minor element. Clearly Cumming was cast because the production intended to emphasise the sexual ambiguities of Dionysus. He duly plays up to this at every turn. The opening image is his bared bottom as he is lowered to the stage (again I don’t think this adds much to the characterisation but nudity, as previously noted with regards to Poppea, is absolutely de rigour in the modern theatre). He is garbed throughout in a gold lame tunic and rather silly wig. The majority of his lines are delivered knowingly to the audience, starting with his very first one – “So Thebes. I’m back.” The trouble is that the character is much more complex and subtle than this – the sexual hedonist is only one side of him. For instance, Pentheus’s defiance of Dionysus which leads to his doom is dependent on his inability to recognise the God for who he is. But Cumming’s performance shies away from any sense of ambiguity. He is the epitome of camp, a particular type of God resplendent in gold lame and too much make up, who will get his biggest kicks from slinking around on stage, and getting other men into dresses beside him. There’s no real sense of danger or mystery in Cumming’s performance. This undermines the credibility of Pentheus, but it also weakens Dionysus since the words he’s actually speaking suggest so much more. For example, in this version, it’s clear that there’s a burning resentment at Thebes for its treatment of his mother Semele. This explodes in Dionysus’ final monologue, but is hardly visible earlier on, making it less than convincing. Dionysus’s words to Pentheus suggest a presence that is slippery to grasp, but we are never in any doubt that this is the God (or at least the Cumming/Tiffany version of him). And there is one maddening piece of translator’s messing about. When Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress up as a woman to spy on the women the scene becomes a transvestite fantasy. Again, there’s just no subtlety to it. Pentheus simply changes clothes because the text demands it – there’s no real sense of why. Moreover, Dionysus is plotting a terrible revenge, but Cumming is just having a huge joke. The line, “Come out…you know you want to” accompanied by a trademark knowing smile from Cumming garners a laugh, but as with so much of this production, the human dilemma behind it is effectively ignored. It’s another empty effect.

Another disappointing aspect of the production is the treatment of the Chorus. Here they are turned into ten gospel singers in red gowns. I presume that Tiffany’s intention was to capture the religious ecstasy of that musical experience. Properly executed this might have worked, here it is a lamentable failure. Tim Sutton’s score is awful, his performers muster a feeble sound given the number of them on stage, and again it’s all a display – there’s no sense of real emotional power behind it.

But perhaps the worst problem of this production, and one which the National Theatre of Scotland really needs to address if it genuinely wishes to lay claim to a role of cultural leadership in Scotland comparable to that being extremely ably performed by the National Theatre in London, is the basic quality of the acting. Not one of the performers in this company really have a sense of how to deliver the lines – a fact depressingly ignored by most professional critics. The quality of acting was, if anything, down on the Lyceum’s own uneven season. Bluntly, there was nobody to compare with the performances Marianne Eliot recently drew in St Joan, or, if that is to set the bar too high, the National Theatre debut of Ruth Wilson as Tanya in Philistines.

Let me give some examples. Two members of the gospel Chorus have to deliver long monologues describing the horrific scenes of bacchic madness they have witnessed. The best such performances in Greek tragedy make you believe that you’re really there with them, living through those experiences moment by moment. You are compelled to listen however awful it becomes. It should be mesmeric. But their inexperience showed, projection, diction, and pacing were all inadequate. Either they need better training, or better direction – but that level should not be considered acceptable for a National Theatre. Paola Dionisetti has received much praise for her performance as Agave, but here too I found many of the same problems. She paused in bizarre places, she overdid the effects. Just like the chorus, she did not convince. Tony Curran as Pentheus was better, but again there was no subtlety – it seemed that Tiffany had instructed him to shout every line – though this did at least make the text audible. Only Ewan Hooper as Cadmus and Cumming himself really rose towards the heights that such a production ought to obtain. Cadmus was impressive in the final scenes, but undermined by Dionisetti’s over-acting. Cumming however, was the most infuriating of all. Every now and again one caught a glimpse of a completely different Dionysus struggling to get out of the habitual camp, knowing routine. A truly great actor could have silenced those laughs, transformed the audience’s expectations, shocked the audience out of them. Cumming and Tiffany ultimately retreated from the attempt. The result has clearly been good box office, but it is not great theatre worthy of an aspiring National Theatre of Scotland, nor the Edinburgh International Festival. This is a production of effects, symbolised by the explosion of flames, rather than an exploration in depth of the human psyche.

Monday 13 August 2007

Alarming Sibelius

Well, the 2007 festival and the tenure of Jonathan Mills is off to a flying start (though I personally opted out of Candide). My festival experience began on Saturday with a concert from Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and a very poorly sold on at that (the hall was perhaps one third full). Perhaps as on paper this was not a blockbuster: opening with two pieces by Estonian Heino Eller (1887-1970) and closing with a ballet from Falla (all three works unknown to me). What might be termed the headline work was itself not exactly an easy one, Sibelius's magical fourth lack the glory and accessibility of works like the second or the fifth. Still, those who went elsewhere were missing out.

Eller is not a household name, and on the basis of Dawn and Twilight this is not entirely unfair. They were nice enough, but rather had the feel of film music. However, the ensemble played them very well, and there was at times a wonderful weight. There also seemed to be hints of both Sibelius and Wagner, which made this interesting programatically.

The Sibelius that followed was something else. There was a real depth to the superbly played opening chords. The quality of the strings and the principle cello was particularly high. Jarvi's reading had a very dark feel to it, yet not in the edgy sense that often is present. He had good control of the orchestra and great delicacy at times. He also provided a strong sense of structure (something that eludes many interpreters) and held the tension well. What a shame then that as the magnificent third movement reached its climax the Usher Hall's fire alarms sounded (I am told by those who were there on Sunday that the hall currently has problems with running water to boot). Jarvi persisted for several minutes before, by dint of the fade up of the house lights and the recorded announcements, he was forced to admit defeat. Despite the poorly filled hall, it still took around 5 minutes to evacuate the upper circle which once more made me glad it wasn't a real fire as I'm sure were one to occur, anyone on the upper floor would be in trouble (presumably the will be addressing this when the hall is refurbished).

It is doubly annoying as this is the second time this has happened in the last year. Towards the end of the wonderful Mackerras/Scottish Chamber Orchestra reading of Haydn's Creation last October, we were forced out of the building. And I am told the alarm kept going off during last year's opening concert (Electra).

Still, 20 minutes later we were back in our seats and the Jarvi picked up where he had been so rudely interrupted. It is a testament to the professionalism of those involved that they resumed with every bit the passion and the inconvenience was soon but a memory. He capped the reading with a fine finale. Rather than bursting out immediately and dominating, the fourth movement's brightness emerged only slowly and never completely. The closing bars were suitably dark and melancholy.

After the interval, we finished with Falla's Three Cornered Hat. Like the 1812 overture or Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, this felt like something of a party piece: tremendous fun but you probably wouldn't take it to your desert island. Victoria Simmonds proved an engaging soloist, not least the Latin passion with which she stormed onto the stage to over the top fanfares. She was accompanied by interestingly scored clapping from the orchestra. However, by the end it had slightly overstayed its welcome and there were rather too many false finishes.

All in all, a solid start to the year's festivities.

Saturday 11 August 2007

Poppea, or The more things change, the more they stay the same...

After an opening concert which gave some suggestion of new directions for the International Festival tonight it was a return to business as usual with yet another piece of supposedly provocative, ground-breaking theatre. This year, it came from Vienna, under the charge of an Australian director, Barrie Kosky, who judging by the interview with him in the programme is mainly to be distinguished by his towering ego.

Kosky and the Vienna Schauspielhaus have set out to reinvent Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea. This is firmly indicated in the publicity, and rather undermined the fury of one member of the audience at the interval who expressed his disgust at Monteverdi having been so ripped to pieces. He cannot say he wasn't warned. Here Monteverdi arranged Kosky is mingled with a number of famous Cole Porter songs including Delovely, Anything Goes and So in Love. Operatic style singing is mocked with pauses and over-accentuated coloratura singing. Wild physical interractions dominate the staging. All this, to begin with, seems intriguing and to promise a performance that will meet Kosky's declaration in the programme - “A director reveals to the audience a universe that is very subjective. You have to say, “This is how I view the piece,” and hope that most people find something that resonates with them.” The trouble is, as gradually becomes clear, that Kosky actually has nothing substantial to say about the piece. By deconstructing it in this way, he removes the heart that was there, and has nothing to put in its place.

The staging was sparse. A box like bare stage, enclosed on three sides by walls with multiple panels function as doors, two period chairs which were periodically thrown about, and a bath tub which occasionally emerged from the depths whenever characters needed to engage in public sex which (this being a “daring” theatre production) occurred with monotonous regularity. (As an aside, the main interest of the bath tub consisted in trying to fathom how the protagonists were managing to fit themselves into it). In this unforgiving environment (the empty stage rather than the bathtub), the performers spent their time throwing themselves around, thrusting themselves upon each other, writhing in various compromising positions. After about the first 15 minutes one had seen all the moves at Kosky’s disposal, and thereafter what you got was repetition upon repetition.

Musically, there was no problem with the juxtaposition of Porter and Monteverdi in itself, the small ensemble in the pit made the most of the Lyceum's warm acoustic, and there were some perfectly good vocalists on stage. But unfortunately, every song was delivered in the same style by the performers, the emotion was simply removed. It did not seem to signify what the text was saying. This disregard of the text has become a depressingly familiar feature both of mainstream opera production and deconstructions like this. It does make me wonder whether directors like Kosky are reading the same words that I'm reading, since the frequent effect is to make me feel that we must understand totally different things by the same text. As so often, I did not believe in the characters on stage, or the relationships between them. When they talked of love, or tyranny they might just as well have been discussing colour of the theatre carpet. I am frankly tired of this kind of experience. The National's Saint Joan where the words are the centre, was a refreshing indication of how strong the opposite approach can be.

And then there was the nudity and sex, the final box that it seems it is de rigour to tick in modern theatrical productions. Is it naïve of me to suggest that it would actually now be daring for performers to leave their clothes on? Obviously that would have been too daring for the great Kosky, so instead we had sexual act after sexual act (Nero bringing Seneca to ejaculation in the bath-tub, Amor going down on Poppea in the same location being the highlights) and nudity upon nudity culminating in Nero removing Drusilla’s underwear, ogling her private parts and exposing her breasts as she prepares to go into exile). None of this was shocking or titillating, but tedious.

One is clearly supposed to be violently provoked by Kosky’s productions – the programme informs the reader that they have previously caused near riots in European houses. For me this show was guilty of a much more serious theatrical sin – it was dull.

Welcome New Driver, or Opening Concert EIF 2007

And so it begins…there is a hole in your mind…Ah no, sorry, different sinister plot altogether. Back to reality…

Friday night saw the long awaited opening of Jonathan Mills’ first Edinburgh International Festival. While I have been uneasy about some of his other innovations (particularly the early music invasion) I was delighted that musical theatre (Bernstein’s Candide) was making its way into the Festival programme. Yet, something of what Mills may have to contend with was illustrated in Conrad Wilson’s preview in The Scotsman which asserted gloomily that the wisdom of opening the Festival with such a piece had yet to be proved. I await Wilson’s review with interest since, for me, the performance was a triumph.

The reasons for that can be steadily ticked off. Mills, or Robert Spano had lined up an excellent team of soloists who not only could sing their parts, but also injected just the right level of silliness into the proceedings. The amount of movement and interaction among the principals successfully created a sense of drama, continuing a welcome development in concert opera at Edinburgh which there were signs of in Elektra and Meistersinger last year. They brought out with sparkle this libretto filled with wit (my particular favourite being Cunegonde’s evocation of her breasts “my memorable mammaries like Alpine peaks”). The stand outs among the soloists were Laura Aiken and Matthew Polenzani as the young lovers, and Roland Wood as her snobbish brother, not forgetting Thomas Allen who tripped his way lightly through Pangloss’s patter, and delivered the spoken narration in wonderful deadpan style. Before leaving the singers one must also mention the supporting performers from the RSAMD. Reinforcements have come from them before for events like this, but I cannot remember a previous occasion when all sang so well, infused their parts with such a good sense of character and, last but certainly not least, had excellent diction.

Next, you had superb playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the best singing I have heard in a long time from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Whether they have been weeded out a bit by the new broom, or whether Spano has found the magic touch that enables an acceptable level of sound and precision to be got from them, I do not know, but either way their performance was impressive.

Finally, there was Spano himself. The main danger with musicals being done by classical forces in my experience is that the whole exercise can become too reverential – tempi slow down, the sound may be sumptuous, but it drags. Spano created the opposite effect, lively, bouncing, exciting all the way through, one could see heads nodding in time, and fingers bouncing away on knees. (There was the odd exception to this, notably the lady on my right who looked thoroughly bored – you can always tell, they develop a sudden fascination with the biographies of the performers in the back of the programme. Why such people stay for second halves must remain a mystery). Yet, he also drew some marvellous sweeping lingering climaxes at the right moments – particularly in the great moving chorale “Make Our Garden Grow” with which the musical concludes. Finally, although he was a dynamic presence on the podium – he was not of the arrogant maestro school. Taking the curtain call he was remarkably unassuming, and having him sing in one line as croupier at the casino was a lovely touch – another indication of the playful quality of the performance.

This whole evening augers well for the new regime, as did Mills’ nice touch of getting the massed chorus and orchestra to open proceedings with a quick chorus of Happy Birthday Edinburgh Festival (though the Festival Director could do with a few pointers on delivery of speeches). Let us hope that Mr Salmond’s dreams of a new Scotland include the granting of sufficient funds to see a similar triumph 60 years from now.

Sunday 5 August 2007

A Lacklustre Gershwin Matinee

The state of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park production of Gershwin’s Lady be Good can best be indicated if I say that during the first half I derived more entertainment from watching the steady procession of audience members succumbing to the heat and being escorted out of the auditorium than I did from what was going on on-stage.

It has first of all to be admitted that this is clearly a “problem” musical for revival purposes. We are firmly in Rhode Island high society, such that I kept expecting the chorus to break into Anna Russell’s anthem “We are the great Four Hundred, if you want to know who we are.” Names like Josephine Vanderwater and Watty Watkins make it rather difficult to take the characters seriously. In sum, its all very light and frothy and the trouble with the first half of this production is that it lacks the essential sparkle.

A lot of this, to my considerable surprise, could be attributed to the dull, repetitive choreography. I say surprise, because the choreographer in question (Bill Deamer) has just done a magnificently inventive Babes in Arms at Chichester. But here, it looked untidy and uninspired. The nature of the ensemble may have contributed. Contrary to the usual problem of ensembles, there seemed to be a distinct lack of women. Three couples, plus the principals, would have been more than sufficient, but there always seemed to be about half a dozen other men messing about at the back of the group. There was also an increasingly irritating tendency, whenever a song began between two of the principals, for a passing ensemble to roll on stage. This can be done imaginatively so that there is at least some rationale for their presence – here they just tended to wander on, do a few turns, and wander off again. The orchestra had caught, or perhaps initiated the pervading mood, and seemed also to be half asleep. Everything seemed to go at the same tempo, and Fascinating Rhythm just wasn’t. More troubling, the diction and volume of the ensembles were poor considering the number of people on stage.

After this highly lucklustre first half, things did improve in the second. Kate Nelson disguises herself as a Mexican widow, and we finally get a sparkling number in the shape of Just Another Rhumba. We were also allowed to have a more simply staged number in the shape of Little Jazz Bird, beautifully sung by Rachel Jerram. Credit also goes to Paul Grunert, as the wily lawyer. The second half still could not get past the problem that this is a very silly show, but it seemed to have grasped the solution that to get it even close to working you have to sparkle, you have to have snap, both qualities lacking in the first half.

Not the greatest of Gershwin’s shows then, but if the cast and orchestra could inhale their interview pick-me-ups before curtain up it might be much improved.

Religion and the Family at the National

At the start of the National Theatre’s new production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, it briefly seemed as if it could be a long evening. Never having seen the play before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was puzzled to discover that the heap on stage was a heap of chairs, and couldn’t quite be doing with the slow motion deconstruction of the heap by the ensemble to some solemn religious music from the live band. Suffice it to stay that this stylised manner gradually builds, and the opening is stunningly justified by the last moments of the whole piece.

The staging consists of a large platform, set on the famous revolve. Behind is a stark backdrop of shattered trees, while to the sides what looks like a stack of corrugated fencing rests against the walls. Most of the action takes place on that platform with a kind of Greek chorus lounging around on the chairs (now formed into two rows) at the sides, forming the various armies and, in the climactic trial scene, the members of prosecution and defence teams (one of the clever aspects of the staging is to subtly implicate the stalls audience in much of what is going on).

The slow opening persists through the first scene, where the French commander who first encounters Joan just doesn’t get the character right. But when Scene 2 takes us to the French court things really catch fire. We have disgruntled commanders, a hapless monarch and the grim, gaunt Archbishop always ready with, as the weakling Dauphin puts it “another sermon”, and superbly played by James Hayes. As individuals and an ensemble they give perfectly judged performances. You get the feeling that Marianne Eliot knows where she wants them at every point – that there is a motivation for them to be standing wherever they happen to be standing. Gestures, tone, expression – it’s all there, and it makes for compelling theatre. That sense of complete performance is best realised in the final scene of the first act. This is preceded by the raising of the siege at Orleans. Apparently, I discovered afterwards, Shaw never intended this to be staged. Well, Eliot justifiable dismisses that. Slamming chairs hard down in a kind of crazy break dancing, small groups of the ensemble charging around the stage, Duff smashing the reverberating fencing in ecstasy, and finally, Duff being hauled upwards as the platform rises into the air to symbolise the taking of the forts while dead bodies roll down the back of it. It’s mesmerising, and Eliot follows it with a quite unexpected picture. Beneath the risen arch of the platform, a table has miraculously appeared at which the English commander, and his bluff clerical associate, are calmly taking tea. I have no idea whether this is in the stage directions but it’s a masterstroke. It captures a particular idea of the British at war – battles may have been lost but this trying situation must not be allowed to interrupt the serving of tea.

And amid this essentially ghastly collection of scheming men is Anne-Marie Duff’s Joan. Duff is at least three different people all struggling to express themselves. On one level the country girl in her ignorance treating these great courtiers as equals; on another the visionary who sees possibilities the rest of them are afraid (and one gradually realises with a kind of horror, with reason afraid) to grasp. Finally, as the play goes on she is the hopelessly caught up in forces she can’t really comprehend, her innocence which in the beginning was a strength turned bitterly against her.

I won’t spoil the ending for any readers who may see it, but it is perfectly clear why several reviewers have seen this as a play for our times. It is profoundly unsettling. As a viewer one is appalled by the treatment of Joan at her trial, but one is also forced to the recognition that her judges may not be wholly mistaken. How is anyone else to know whether Joan is actually hearing the voices of God, and what would happen if everybody else started to behave in that fashion. Behind the fears for loss of power (temporal or spiritual) expressed by earls and bishops, there are the darker spectres of blood and martyrdom. One is compelled to consider that Joan’s voices are precipitating just as much carnage as the more sober calculations of the cold bloods of the Earl of Warwick and the Inquisitor (among an array of biting lines, the Earl’s reposte to a terrified subordinate who has just witnessed Joan’s burning is particularly resonant – “If you have not the nerve to see these things, why do you not do as I do, and stay away?”). Those spectres are all the more telling precisely because Eliot resists the temptation to load the staging with modern examples – something it would be all to easy to do.

To reveal her alternative interpretative choice would be to spoil the brilliance of the ending. Perhaps it is best just to say that it’s a while since I’ve spent the bus journey home with my mind resting quite so much on the last scene of a play.

Having been so overwhelmed by Saint Joan, it was instructive to see the National’s other large scale production of the moment, Gorky’s Philistines, so soon afterwards. Although set in a completely different time (turn of the twentieth century Russia) and in a much smaller environment (a single house and its tenants) the style is very similar. As in the Shaw, we are confronted with a collapsing society, symbolised here by the warring generations of the family who own the house. Also, as with Shaw, the potential pitfalls are very similar. It is all too easy for lines here to sound like the author lecturing the audience and not like a sentiment being expressed by a rounded character in the play in whose character one genuinely believes. Eliot’s Shaw avoided these pitfalls, Howard Davies’s Gorky does not.

Let us start with the positives. The set is effective. Before the play opens we are confronted with a façade of windows, behind which various characters stride up and down. Their symbolic imprisonment is obvious but no less effective, and the disappearance of this façade into the stage floor to reveal the main living room with its multiple doors, the more so. During the first act you do feel that Davies has got a grasp on his cast, in the way that Eliot had in the Shaw. There are some very effective moments of staging and Ruth Wilson as Tanya, the depressed daughter of the house, and here making an impressive National debut is at the heart of most of them.

Two images particularly stay with me. Tanya, seated at the piano, picking out a dirge, her reflection illuminating the rainswept window beside her; Tanya, crouching at the far side of the stage, first behind the banisters, then behind a tatty armchair, watching in horror as Nil, the man she has been unable to express her love to is swearing his affections to her rival. That particular moment is the climax of the first act and the best part of the piece. Davies’s staging of these two scenes, the first between Tanya and Nil, the second between Nil and Polya, the woman he will marry, watched by Tanya and Teterev (Conleith Hill’s philosophic lodger, the other standout performance) from the shadows are very moving. Davies conjures electricity between Tanya and Nil in the miserable moment when Tanya tries to reveal her feelings, and her hands itch to hold his, but she cannot do it.

Unfortunately, in the second half the problems of the first significantly outweigh its promise. The pacing of the lines increasingly slips. Complaints about the collapsing society from the irate father, complaints about his hapless student existence from his estranged son tend to sound like lectures from Gorky rather than the expressions of the characters. The management of the increasing numbers of people on the stage becomes less effective, with too many people standing around at different points looking as if they have not been given sufficiently clear instructions. The result is that the father’s climactic betrayal of his family lacks bite, despite Phil Davis’s ferocity.

Finally, there is the curious matter of the new translation by Andrew Upton. He seems to have taken a decision to modernise, with the result that we get lots of swearing by Jesus, and the use of other odd terms like “weird” as a descriptor. This doesn’t sit well with the retention of the Russian names, making them seem incongruous. Nor does it fit with the staging, which maintains a basically traditional setting symbolised by the samovar. Obviously the stifling Russian drawing room and the taking of tea can drown plays of this kind, but consequently a decision has to be made one way or the other – traditional or modern. This production gets stuck between the two.