Monday 25 August 2008

365, or the Curse of the International Festival Drama Programme Strikes Again

On paper, David Harrower’s 365 ought to be a hit. Its author wrote the only genuine hit new play of which the International Festival can in recent years boast. The choreographer played a major role in the National Theatre of Scotland’s smash hit Black Watch, and the company itself is alleged to be on a roll. Unfortunately, for those of us stuck in the audience on Saturday night, the best laid plans…

The show lasts for an increasingly interminable two hours, without an interval. Its central problem is that nobody at any stage exerted quality control on a script in which nothing happens, and goes on happening. Put simply, we see a tiny fragment of life of some dozen or so characters (none of them given names or much in the way of background). These fragments repeat themselves, in some cases three or four times, without there being any emotional or narrative development. Thus, one girl starts a conversation with her estranged mother at the beginning and is still carrying on that same conversation two hours later.

To try to pad out this inadequate script, the production resorts to effects. The characters are transported at one stage into a kind of fairy tale forest, for no readily apparent reason. Fragments of choreography reminiscent of Black Watch, but almost wholly without its emotional impact, are deployed. Characters are flown about the stage on wires, adding nothing to the poignancy of their stories. Finally, about half way through a fire breaks out. For a few brief moments I cherished the hope that the fire brigade might appear and liven things up, but no. The whole thing just went on, and on and on, while, typically for the Festival, audience members began to walk out.

My own personal irritation reached a climax at the top of the second hour, when one character delivers a monologue all about how it is impossible to make a coherent narrative out of her story – for which read all the stories going to make up this improvisatory mess. If I have to sit through another new play which insists on being self-referential about the ways in which it is playing with the form I think I’m going to scream.

The National Theatre of Scotland seriously needs to try a few solid performances of the classics. Indeed, it might do a lot worse than try them with this company who did their best to sell a lousy product. The acting was certainly an improvement on several of the ropier performances in last year’s Bacchae. If the NTS wants to make political points, it could do much worse than study recent revivals of Shaw in London. He was searing about a great many social conditions, but he recognised that this is far more effective when viewed through a specific case. Harrower ultimately tells no story, provides few reasons, and suggests no solutions.

Brian McMaster’s drama programmes used to attract annual condemnation. But McMaster at least gave us, in addition to his many turkeys, marvellous productions of great plays from directors like Peter Stein, and companies like the Abbey Theatre, Dublin and the Vienna Burgtheatre. Mills has thrown them all out with the old regime, he has yet to show that he can provide quality work in their place.

Saturday 23 August 2008

Ruhe: Or Two Rants and Some Second-rate Schubert

One day the International Festival will get bored of concept theatre and give us a theatrical performance that tells a straight story well. Perhaps they could begin by inviting back the Vienna Burgtheater. In the meantime, we are left with another evening which tries to cleverly combine different art forms, and ends up boring at least this member of its audience.

The performance takes place in the Great Hall at the Hub. In place of a seating rake, the audience is ushered into higgledy-piggledy circles of chairs, turned in on a small empty central space. While the audience is still entering, the members of Collegium Vocale Ghent, who turn out to be seated among the audience, stand up on their chairs and begin a few verses of Schubert part songs. These last nearly an hour and a quarter, interrupted by two monologues or, I think it would be more accurate to say, rants from two former Dutch collaborators trying to explain their stories. Neither component of the performance is especially engaging, and they did not mesh effectively together.

Part of the problem for me rested with the music. Schubert was not I think at his best in these songs. They all sounded rather samey to me – I was reminded of the problem I usually have with early music. This is not to say that Collegium Vocale didn’t sing well, but for all their skill they were unable to lift the music above the second tier. As for the two spoken monologues again it just wasn’t very compelling. According to the programme notes these are drawn from a book of interviews with former Dutch members of the SS (in this case a soldier and a nurse). One of the problems certainly is that the questions which broke up these originally have been deleted. There is consequently no interrogation of these accounts – hence my terming them rants. They’re also rather fragmented, disjointed – I never really got a sense of who these two people were, or felt much engagement in their plight. One of our party commented afterwards that the restless audience around us may have contributed to the problem, but in my experience a really great performance transcends such things.

The piece concludes, after the second monologue, not with Schubert but with a modern Dutch part-song, of little musical distinction, entitled Ruhe. The lights dim, the members of the choir move out from among the audience to a semi-circle of music stands, and a black and white image of a Dutch countryside scene is projected onto a screen. This presumably had some kind of symbolic intention which I missed.

I have recently seen both the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch and Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides, extraordinary explorations of themes similar to those which Ruhe attempted to address. Compared to those pieces, this is a disappointment. I was unconvinced by the pairing of Schubert with these monologues, and neither packed sufficient emotional punch. At £17 for the privilege this is most certainly overpriced.

Friday 22 August 2008

The Finns

It hadn't occurred to me, but as one of the International Festival staff I ran into during the interval pointed out to me, it is unusual to have conductor, orchestra and soloist all of the same nationality (and, indeed, composer). Based on the quality of this result it should happen more often.

The return of Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra was one of the highlights that leapt out at me when the programme was published in April. And while my venue management commitments at Fringe Venue 40 have somewhat curtailed my concert going this year, I knew that this was a concert wild horses wouldn't keep me from. The energy and dynamism that Oramo brought to Bruckner's first symphony as he opened the cycle of the composer's symphonies in McMaster's final year as director (2006) was an exceptional experience and I was most glad it might be repeated. Better yet, the programme: Oramo is for my money among the finest Sibelians, his recent cycle with the Finns, broadcast on Radio 3 last year, testifies to this. The icing on the cake was some Janacek in the first half.

It's always a problem with concerts like this, that such expectations can be tough to fulfil. From the opening bars of Janacek's From the House of the Dead prelude I suspected that would not be the case here. The orchestra had a wonderfully rich sound and Oramo brought out some lovely details in the score. It was also nice to see some informative programme notes Janacek expert Mark Audus whom I know via the Radio 3 messageboards.

They were then joined on stage by soprano Karita Mattila for the prayer scene from Jenufa. Her voice is older and thinner than is ideal for this role but her performance was so wonderfully characterised that such concerns were displaced. She bestrode the stage in her bare feet acting with every fibre in her body. Beneath her Oramo and the orchestra provided a superb accompaniment: in particular during the frenzy leading up to her fainting - here is a fine example of Janacek's skill in matching music to drama, and the playing was stunning.

The last item in the first half was Tatyana's letter scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. This better suited her voice (although it too is a young character). It was followed by a folk sounding encore the identification of which was beyond my ken.

It is not too long since I had my last encounter with Sibelius's first symphony in the concert hall, last time it was Oramo's compatriot Esa Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic at the Babrican. It was also deeply disappointing. As noted above, I had higher hopes for Oramo.

A superbly played solo clarinet (doubtless that of Christoffer Sundqvist, the orchestra's principal) accompanied expertly by the timpanist (presumably Lassi Erkkila) made for a spellbinding opening. The first entrance of the strings was sufficiently icy if not quite of Bernsteinian chill. The sheer power they brought to the climaxes was impressive, as was the orchestra's ability to turn for Oramo on a dine (whether it be a change in tempo or volume). There was plenty of sweep to the reading as well and while it was briskly taken it didn't feel it. A smattering of applause greeted the end of the first movement and while this reviewer didn't join in, he certainly sympathised. This was followed by the stunning beauty of the andante, mixed with absolutely frenzied climaxes. Superb pizzicato playing was on display in the third movement, along with no shortage of energy, and not much too fast as it was with the LA Philharmonic. The finale was little short of thrilling, and while there was not shortage of power in the climaxes there was also incredible delicacy when called for. Throughout, Oramo judged his volumes well, loud when needed but never deafening (unlike some reports of Gergiev's Prokofiev I have heard which indicate that everything is double forte or more); he also knows the power of playing very quietly at times and can bring it off with this exceptional band.

I'm not normally a fan of encores, but this concert contained what was surely an exception. Oramo turned to the audience to introduce it, however he spoke quietly and all I heard was something about a bit of London (I thought this was possibly a little impolitic given the location). Then the opening bars sounded. This was not London, this was most definitely Finland, definitely Sibelius and definitely something of a party piece for this team. It was the familiar bars of Finlandia. Now it's a great showpiece and Oramo has, for my money, one of the finest accounts on disc (with the CBSO rather than the Finns, part of a superb cycle). This was everything I might have expected. Sometimes when an orchestra plays an encore they do a lot you get a hint of routine. No so here. Beautiful, powerful and thrilling. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

A note to those in charge of the festival, for the love of everything holy: beg, borrow or steal in necessary, but do for goodness sake get this team back next year, and the next, and the next....... Here's a thought, Jonathan Mills is clearly more of a fan of Sibelius than McMaster was, perhaps Oramo could be persuaded to bring an entire cycle, including Kullervo?

Farewell Alfred Brendel

If not quite Brendel's last appearance (he has a couple of concerts with the Philharmonia later in the year and others before he bows out in December in Vienna), it was the last chance to hear him in Scotland. Your reviewer felt slightly guilty as he heard this programme in Glasgow, but not as guilty as the several people who hadn't made it but hadn't disposed of their tickets either ought to have felt, especially as there are one or two people I know who would have loved a ticket.

I posted the review to that Glasgow concert a couple of months ago and there is little to add to it. The readings were broadly similar, though if anything slightly better - his speed, for example, in the opening movement of Mozart's K533 sonata even more impressive this time round. So too was the way he teased out the ending of Beethoven's op.27/1 sonata.

If there was a black mark it came not from the platform but the audience. There was a significant clique of people who insisted on clapping between movements. They did this after the superbly played first movement of the Mozart; previously I have seen Brendel restore silence with the slightest of gestures, last night that was insufficient. So too was holding up both his hands. They did it again after the sublime slow movement. He complained to the well behaved organ gallery that the Beethoven had four movements. There he gave them no quarter, running on from one movement to the next with the barest of pauses. This solved one problem, but slightly marred things as the work is best heard with the pauses.

During the interval I, and doubtless many others, bemoaned loudly this incredible rudeness on the part of some people. When the break came between the first two movements of the D960 there was a tension in the hall that you could have cut with a knife. The applause did not come. The D960 was splendid and, if anything, more polished and with fewer slips that occurred in Glasgow. It was nothing short of spellbinding.

Brendel received a deserved standing ovation, as much for the quality for the performance as his lifetime of achievement, and had obviously forgiven the audience sufficiently to give an encore (which I think was a beautifully played piece by Bach). More applause followed and a second encore, this time opinion in my party was divided, I wondered if it was Debussy but others though Chopin. Yet more applause brought us a third and final encore, this time more Schubert, which one of my party thought was an impromptu, and a quick trawl though my iTunes library confirms that it was: D899/3. And sublimely played it was too. When I first thought of this concert I knew we would get encores and I slightly regretted that the final notes of the D960 would not be the final notes I would hear Brendel play. These are an equally treasurable memory.

We gave the great man a final standing ovation but the concert had already overrun somewhat and they put the house lights up in an effort to shift us, which after a final curtain call was successful.

There are few other artists who bring such beauty, such a sense of structure and such intellect to the piano; without Alfred Brendel the concert halls will be quieter and, in particular, his annual visits to Edinburgh and the Usher Hall will be missed.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Not bad for two months' work - Le Roi David

Michael Steinberg's programme note for last night's performance of Honegger's Le Roi David (or King David for those whose French is even more limited than mine) informs us that after several other composers had turned down the commission due to the tight deadlines the young, and not yet on the map, Honegger was less fussy. However, the constraint does show in the quality of the work: this is not the greatest oratorio ever written. However, it is not the worst either. Steinberg then goes on to tell us that it wouldn't be helpful to write a synopsis. Having sat through it I disagree, and it would seem no harder to write one than for many an opera. Wikipedia manages a brief, if not very comprehensive one.

Fresh from their triumph at last year's festival with celebration of Poulenc, Deneve is back with Royal Scottish National Orchestra who are on fine form, especially their brass (if perhaps not quite so brilliant as they were for Mahagonny). Then again, this is a less interesting score. Sometimes the music can be a little trite, especially in one or two of the marches, and rather reminiscent of film music, which given the structure of the original performance is not surprising.

However, there were problems from the outset. The narrator was amplified, continuing the worrying trend started with Mahagonny, to rework an old phrase: to amplify once might be considered unfortunate, twice begins to look like carelessness. It was particularly bad when Andrzej Seweryn raised his voice to very little effect. Sylvia Berge was also amplified as the Witch of Endor as she summoned the spirit of Samuel, but here is the kind of rare exception when it can heighten the drama without detracting for the music.

Elsewhere there were more stand-ins. Soprano Geraldine McGreevy had the lions share of the singing to do, and while she wasn't bad, I didn't care for her voice which was rather fluttery for my tastes. Seamus Herron was another last minute addition taking over the boy soprano role of the young David. This was fine, and one felt sorry for him as he had then to sit stock still for the remaining sixty minutes of the piece at the front of the stage.

The vocal highlight was mezzo Karen Cargill, whom I have previously enjoyed singing Das Lied von der Erde for Donald Runnicles. Sadly she had much to little to do.

And what of the work itself? The biblical story may not be to all tastes due to its old testament blood and thunder, likewise the fact that a little time in the desert seems to make up for a lot of sinning. That said, there are some fine moments and it is well worth hearing, though quite how often is more questionable. Nevertheless it was the kind of experience that a festival is for.

Monday 18 August 2008

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Finn has already given us his thoughts on the opening concert of 2008's Edinburgh International Festival, mine are a little different, and for a change I find myself the milder critic.

Before the concert can be discussed, however, we cannot ignore the state of the Usher Hall. It has already wrecked the RSNO's programme for next season through its delays so we should perhaps be grateful that it seems only to be inflicting discomfort on the festival for which things have been made ready. Just. Wooden platforms have been constructed to replace the still absent steps to the various entrances. Bare wires dangle here and there. The bars look temporary to say the least (though the prices of £3.80 for a glass of wine given the situation suggest either a sense of humour or a bare-faced cheek). That said, you are best not buying a drink, or indeed drinking anything at all, since to say the toilet provision in the upper circle was inadequate would be kind. Still, when you finally make it to the auditorium (and if you enter via the Grindlay Street entrance, which necessitates climbing the scaffold, you may be some time) it is the same, and sounds just as good.

Before things kicked off Mills gave a brief speech, continuing his tradition from last year, which included a plea for forbearance regarding the facilities. It could, to my mind, have been just slightly shorter since he didn't say all that much.

When I first started attending the festival the RSNO were slightly the poor third man of the Scottish orchestras; this has now changed and last year's celebration of Poulenc buried the final traces of that notion. Weill's score is magnificent, and provided an excellent showcase for the ensemble in the way an opening concert should.

Problems began with the singers as the spoken dialogue was clearly and loudly amplified. My initial revulsion at this paled, as it did mean we could hear Brecht's biting script. It shouldn't have been necessary though and was mercifully absent in sung portions (at least it seemed to be, and since we couldn't hear much of the sung dialogue, so poor was the diction, that seems a reasonable conclusion), doubly unfortunately, the fading up and down of the mics was not always as precisely on cue as it should have been. There were also some distinct oddities in the semi-staging: such as when Jimmy was implored to put down his knife, despite brandishing a gun.

None the less, the novelty of the new score made for a hugely enjoyable first half. I then spoke to Finn, and another person more knowledgeable about Weill than myself, who highlighted flaws that then stuck out like sore thumbs in the second. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The accents were not what they might have been. A more critical failing lay in the acting. There were some decent performances, particularly Stephan Loges as Bill and Susan Bickley as Begbick (despite the marked contrast between her sung and spoken accents). But elsewhere things were more problematic Anthony Dean Griffey seemed to think he was in Gilbert and Sullivan and Giselle Allen showed not the slightest emotion as Jenny. Indeed, even Hans Blix could not have located the chemistry between her and Anthony Dean Griffey's Jimmy. There was far too much hamming up of the parts, which completely undermines the sarcasm that gives the work such effect, no more so than when Peter Hoare's Jack ate himself to death.

All in all, then, a mixed bag, but an enjoyable evening in the Usher Hall none the less.

The Idiots Return

Some acts on the Fringe have a loyal following and the Village Idiots are certainly one of them. So much so, indeed, that last year when a customer was caught out, having expected them in week two rather than week three, they requested to know when they'd be here this year so they could plan their trip accordingly.

And with good reason. There isn't a huge amount of mask theatre about, but after seeing the Idiots you may think more's the pity. The masks are wonderful and impressively expressive. Indeed, it is amazing just how much can be conveyed with a simple glance or nod of the head. It is a different kind of acting, with so much more having to be conveyed through body language and the idiots are excellent in this regard.

This year's production Filch and Blunder tells the story of two eponymous minor criminals, of the not especially competent variety, who after various attempts (including hilariously with salad tongs) manage to steal old lady Vera's (Penny Ash) handbag. Having discovered her husband's ashes within, Blunder (Charles Ash) is wracked with gilt and they resolve to return it. The play then follows their slightly convoluted attempts to do this.

There is no spoken dialogue at all, and so it makes an interesting contrast to last year's effort Small Medium at Large which had a fair amount (though in that too, none of the masked characters spoke). That show had a lot of nice gags in the dialogue (particularly Johna Ash's mobile phone conversations). But even without words, there is still a wonderful range of comedy: from the groan-worthy pun of chiropodist B. Lister, that wouldn't be out of place in I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, to the innuendo of Blunder glancing at his watch after Filch (Jack Read) has returned from a very brief tryst with Blonde Girl (Michelle Baxter). There is also plenty of slapstick and physical comedy giving Read and Ash the opportunity to display superb comic timing as the leads.

It isn't entirely without words: there is the odd sign displayed, such as "back in five minutes", but always to great comic effect. Well chosen music provides a backdrop to the action and we never feel the story needs more explanation. It is also a gentler kind of comedy, the very funny none the less, and doesn't descend into the nastiness or profanity that some depend upon. At times poignant and yet with a nice twist at the end that will surely put a smile on your face.

This year also finds the company at something of a transition, being an assembly of people who've been in various of their productions over the years and are now looking to strike out on their own. The work they have done is creditable: from fliers that look a lot better than many professional efforts to a clever and intricate set. The set, while not quite as wowing as Plested and Brown, none the less delights as doors open to become the M&S returns counter or a booth at the chiropodist and bus stop signs appear and vanish.

That said, they have missed the keen oversight of director Amanda Wilsher whose notes after every show last year led to a tighter overall performance. There was too, on the performance I attended, the odd missed sound cue. But none of that precludes a must see recommendation.

The Point of a Festival

What is the point of a festival? To entertain, to educate, to include and to provide something for everyone. Sharon May's production of Where the Wild Things Are did all these things.

For two hours, over two consecutive Sundays, the children of Central Edinburgh and South Edinburgh Quaker Meetings put together their production, making shadow puppets in the first week and rehearsing the piece together on the second. Our venue technician David Clarke had kindly given his time to set up lighting and build the screen.

The lights dimmed, and in a clever computer effect the title being projected onto the screen dissolved away. Sharon narrated and the children acted as puppeteers as well as providing sound effects, such as the gnashing of the wild things' teeth, and in unison some dialogue, as when Max threatened to eat someone up or when the wild things pleaded with him to stay.

The puppets had been coloured and then oiled so the light would shine through; this worked brilliantly, bringing everything from Max's bedroom to the trees, and most especially the wild things, vividly to live.

To put a together a production of such charm, humour and poignancy in such a brief span of time is no mean feat and a credit to all involved. Sadly for anyone else wishing to see it, this was an exclusive and one time only performance, strictly by invitation.

It entertained the adults in the audience, as well as the children who performed so well in it. But more than that it provided them with an experience: for three weeks we have a proper theatre available, and in past years it has sat empty on a Sunday morning. How much better to have used it to include everyone in the Festival. What is the point of a festival? Surely, among of there things, it is things like this.

Saturday 9 August 2008

A bit of a farce (but in a good way)

The visits of the Edward's Theatre Company to Venue 40 are always one of my highlights of the Fringe. Not least because as a venue manager I am able to sneak in and watch their warm-up routine (which is not only quite beautiful but would also, I maintain, make a good fringe show in its own right).

This year they have brought Lee Hall's adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's Commedia dell'Arte A Servant of Two Masters. The play begins in the foyer as Mike Tyas' energetic Truffaldino bursts through the double doors to invite us up to the theatre, and to silence our phones, children and spouses, as the remaining cast fuss about and resist his attempts to organise them.

We are then into the play proper, a story of betrothal foiled by death (or has it been?), love foiled by the aforementioned betrothal (or perhaps not), a servant's desire for a good dinner (or two) and good old fashioned cross dressing.

The first difficulty in a play like this, particularly stretching over an hour and a half, is to keep up the pacing. This the cast manage admirably under Carol Ashcroft's strong direction. Tyas is tireless as he bounds around the small stage, no more so than when he serves his two masters their suppers.

Aimee Robertson is also excellent as Smeraldina, the young maid upon whom Truffaldino has his eye, delivers some wonderfully scathing lines and a feminist speech on where she sees the proper role of women being. The two lover are also good, in somewhat thankless roles, in particular Natalie Kane as Clarice who turns her hysterical waterworks on and off on with remarkable, and comic, speed.

Above all, though, it is plenty of fun, from the false name Fusilli Carbonara to the dirtier humour such as when Frankie Tubb's Beatrice proves to Clarice that she is, beyond a doubt, a woman. Already I'm looking forward to whatever they may bring next year.

Where's Runnicles and the Shameless Plugs - Part I

Should I ever decide to start a band, and given my musical talents it's not at all likely, that probably wouldn't be an altogether bad name. As it is, it seems as fitting a title as any for a series of reviews of concerts I've gone to on account of people I know being involved. (And as good a way as any of declaring a potential conflict of interest before getting down to the review.)

Glasgow based indie band The Starlets have recently added Caroline Evens on violin, who in turn invited me to their recent UK tour. I was unable to make the Edinburgh gig, but fortuitously later that week I found myself in London when they were playing at The Good Ship in Kilburn, and while the rest of the weekend was planned, that evening was largely clear.

The first signs were not encouraging. On entering the music was not very good, and not helped by the fact that it was over-amplified and distorting horribly. Fortunately, The Starlets had NOT taken to the stage yet.

Thankfully they did fairly soon after (so making my delayed flight something of a relief, and leaving me only a couple of songs to wish that, like a wiser person, I had brought earplugs). As might be expected from a band that has both a violin and trumpet in the mix they have a somewhat atypical and nicely lyrical sound. (In contrast to the first group they were properly balanced and at a sensible volume.)

More than anything they reminded me of The Decemberists, though in my view being rather more interesting musically, not least in the various textures the band produced. If there is a criticism it would be that the lyrics aren't anything to write home about, but then not everyone can be Leonard Cohen.

Their sets were all too brief and followed by enthusiastic and deserved calls for more (calls with which Where's Runnicles was for once in sympathy). They are due a new album soon, which I await with interest.

Festival 2008 Opening Concert: Opera Singers make a hash of Musical Theatre

After last year’s blazing opening concert of Bernstein’s Candide, I had high hopes of Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The RSNO is an orchestra on a roll, there were some starry soloists in the line-up (Willard White and Susan Bickley – although White cancelled days before the concert) and H K Gruber, the conductor, is supposed to be steeped in this musical world. Unfortunately I had forgotten the one problem with this kind of enterprise – that most operatic singers do not understand how to sing musical theatre – and more seriously, Gruber appeared to have failed to explain it to them.

However, before coming to the performance, a few words need saying about the cock-up which is the Usher Hall. In his opening remarks Jonathan Mills urged us to congratulate the many hard-working people who had made it possible to open the Usher Hall for this year’s festival. One cannot help feeling that if a few people had used their brains a bit more in the last few years we would not now be in this mess. The situation is worse than when the ceiling was being re-done some years ago. Outside one proceeds through a maze of wooden boards and hoardings and then up through what looks like scaffolding to the heights of the Upper Circle. This in itself is a pretty damning indictment of those in charge of one of the best concert venues in the world but the worst is yet to come. In the very large Upper Circle there is one set of loos to service the entire audience. I can only advise the ladies not to drink anything before or during the concert, and you will then not have to spend the entire interval in the queue.

Turning then to the music. The first problem was the accents. Mahagonny is set in the United States. Unfortunately, either none of the singers were American, or they were disguising it with a regrettable brilliance. The accents were all over the place. The worst culprit here was Susan Bickley whose spoken and sung accents were completely different and who seemed to change her country of origin from sentence to sentence. This collective failing made it very difficult to sell the text.

The second problem was that for inexplicable reasons there was a decision to partially mike the performance for the spoken dialogue. In my side part of the Upper Circle this produced an effect of disembodied voices. Several people might be standing up below and one could not always tell who was actually speaking. It also seemed to me wholly unnecessary – the acoustic in the Hall is if anything over reverberant – do they not teach singers how to project?

However, it was the music itself which raised the most serious problems. Put simply, with the exception of Gruber and the orchestra, the rest of the performers all seemed to think they were in completely different operas. Anthony Dean Griffey (Jim Mahoney) was actually singing Nanki-Poo in The Mikado and Susan Bickley (Leokadja Begbick) was singing Tosca neither of them delivering their lines with any conviction as to their meaning. Behind them, the Festival Chorus (returning to bad old habits of feeble sound and lack of bite) seemed to think they were singing a Handel oratorio. But by far the worst culprit was the infuriating Giselle Allen singing the prostitute Jenny Hill. The character is a rather seedy and steadily more broken-down whore. Allen played it like a prima donna opera star. The disjunction between text/music and actual performance was infuriating. It was as if Allen was simply not attending to what the text was actually saying. And nowhere was this more noticeable than in a section of sprechgesang. That can be extraordinarily moving, here it was completely unconvincing. I did not believe that Jim and Jenny felt anything for each other.

Among this rather disappointing fare, the RSNO provided the main saving grace. The brass and percussion sections in particular played superbly. It was a joy to hear Weill’s wonderful score in all its glory in that space. But here their enthusiasm was hindered by Gruber’s conducting. His failure to galvanise his singers has already been remarked on. His failure to harness the orchestra was more serious. Weill should be performed on the edge – it needs to be biting, jagged, uneasy. Even in those wonderful wistful solos there needs to be a drive, a push forward. Perhaps the trouble was that Gruber simply loved the score too much, but he was much too slow, and lacking in bite. Instead of dancing, the performance dragged. He also didn’t seem to have much idea of how to conduct the Chorus whose entrances and exits were sloppy. Most infuriating of all, he didn’t seem to have even pointed out obviously significant punctuation. One of Weill’s most biting lyrics concludes – ‘Fourth comes drinking: down the hatch!’ To make this line work you need to acknowledge the colon – otherwise there is no bite, no punch. Time after time the Festival Chorus ignored it. I could not understand why nobody had pointed this out to them.

So, one of the weakest openings for some years. Let us hope there is better to come.

Friday 8 August 2008

"There is no decent place to stand in a massacre"

So sings Leonard Cohen in his song The Captain. The line particularly strikes me as I think of a way to open this review of Syracuse University Drama Department's production of Columbinus at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Venue 40. Before I go further, I should probably declare an interest: namely that I am also one of the venue managers.

As might be expected from the title, the play recreates the events of 20th April 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 of their fellow Columbine High School students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves. Rather than over-dramatising, it is based on interview transcripts with survivors. This initially gives it a rather stilted feel, but makes the ensuing events more harrowing.

The design is very sparse, the set consisting of just six chairs. A projector displays the title of various scenes on the rear wall. The play opens with a scene of assorted teenagers going through their morning routines, reminiscent of the staging of 1984 at this venue from Edward's Theatre Company two years ago, which featured trance-like choreography of workers commuting.

We then see the kids, first introduced and described by their peers, then by themselves, fascinating for the differences that are revealed. The production uses the striking device of red lighting for each of the many times a scene is paused so we can hear the person's inner monologue.

The massacre itself is relayed in the starkest terms, from 911 calls played back and accompanied by CCTV images. The desperation in the voices is harrowing. The action then shifts to the library. Harris and Klebold prowl around the room while the other students cower beneath the tables. The words here all appear to be transcripts from interviews, this gives them a clinical feel which makes them all the more troubling. In a particularly effective decision no sound effects are used for the bullets save for the killers clapping; this becomes particularly troubling when one student is shot repeatedly. Then there is the sheer brutality of their treatment of an african-american student. I'm not sure how the actors kept going, as it was all I could do to keep quiet.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and you soon forget that several of the women in this female heavy cast are playing men. Joshua Finn and David Synder are particularly effective as the killers.

It's been said in some reviews that the play doesn't explain the events, but I would disagree. We see the alienation of these two people, and the completely inadequate intervention of authority figures at so many points along the road. It is telling at the end when we that 15 trees were planted in memorial, and two were later cut down by the relatives. When the names of the victims are display Klebold and Harris are absent and it seems clear that the community has yet to come fully to terms with the tragedy.

One of the reactions from the right after the similar Virginia Tech shooting was that the guns weren't to blame. As someone who is in favour of gun control I find this a troubling argument. And yet this play speaks to the fact that it wasn't guns that drove this, it was something deeper and altogether harder to address, as shown by a grotesque moment when Klebold describes his wish to kill someone with a knife.

It is a deeply upsetting and troubling experience, but one well worth experiencing. Director Joseph Whelen and his students are to be commended.

Haitink conducts Parsifal

Having managed to go a whole month without reviews in July, where's Runnicles brings you another timely effort, in that it is only from December (only being relative). After the finer moments of Haitink's ring cycle (spoilt by a poor choice for Brunnhilde), I was most eager to hear this. Unfortunately it disappointed.

Haitink's conducting was workmanlike, in the worst way: there was no drama and up in the Gods it was much too quiet. He was also very slow: act one weighed in at over hour and forty-five minutes, and it felt it. Now, I like a slow Parsifal, my favourite recording is, after all, the 1951 Knappertsbusch, but there was none of the flow that and beauty that that compensates with, Haitink's climaxes did not feel organic. Indeed, his reading felt rather stop start.

I said in my review of the Runnicles Gotterdammerung at the Proms that I thought John Tomlinson's voice was past its best, I still feel that. However, in the role Gurnemanz this matters less than it did for Hagen and there is still a wonderful sense of character to his performance. Petra Lang's Kundry, another key reason for wanting to see the production, is very good as was Falk Struckmann's Amfortas, though to some extent he was hobbled (quite literally) by one of the many silly quirks of this production: a bizarre crutch with a wheeled crutch which he couldn't put any weight on as it would have slid out from under him. Similarly, Christopher Ventris as Parsifal has been dressed up to look as if he's come to repair the telephones. The offstage choir in the first act were far too faintly balanced, where is Runnicles with his genius for this sort of thing when you need him. And the less said about the revealing of the grail the better - what grail! It was left to our imaginations.

Haitink's conducting briefly caught fire at the start of act two. On the whole this was brisker but had soon returned to dullness. Willard White seemed a bit past it as Klingsor but Lang's Kundry and Ventris's Parsifal are very strong. But in Klingsor's castle the production goes from bad to worse. Damian Hirst on acid might be the closest explanation - why was there a giant fish hanging from the ceiling? Why were the flower maidens doing pilates? According to the programme "We are in a submerged castle, imaginable only in a world of poetic magic.". Hmmm. Whatever you say. I don't see what's wrong with a proper castle, or how are characters were meant to be able to breath. I don't mind a change of scene when it reveals something, here it was just silly. It gets worse as the lights flash to indicate Klingsor and Parsifal's battle and the spear being hurled, but this just appears comical, the more so as the tiny wall at the back of the set collapses to indicate the fall of Klingsor's realm. If you can't do something on a proper scale, it's often best to not do it at all. Set designers Gillles Aillaud and Vera Dobroschke-Lindenberg and original director Klaus Michael Gruber take note!

How could it be worse? In act three we find out, which the team, in their wisdome, have set on a golf course. In fairness, it is meant to represent the snow thawing patchily. But it doesn't look like that, it looks like a golf course and the snow patches look a little like sheepskin rugs. If the directors want to know how this is done, take a look at Hytner's Don Carlos. Similarly absurd looking is the tent that appears to have been patched with sheepskin. Then there is the blue stone that is slowly dragged off the stage like some weird cartoon character. The golf-course motif is continued when Parsifal plonks the spear down into one of the holes, yet for some reason Gurnemanz recognises it nor him. At the close the grail knights are all wheeled onto the stage as if their on rollerblades and the effect to represent the grail is as odd as it was in act one. "Oh yes." moaned one patron as the music finished. And, indeed, broadly the audience seemed to have loved Haitink.