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 na├»ve 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.

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