Monday 9 February 2009

Festival 2006, Part I - What Delayed Runnicles?

As I did with the 2005 Edinburgh festival, now seems good time to round up the reviews I wrote during the 2006 festival on the Naim Audio forum (they weren't done here as this website didn't exist yet). You can view the full thread here.

Actually, first review didn't pertain to the International Festival, but rather the Fringe, and qualifies as a shameless plug as it was of a production at my own Venue 40, an adaptation by the Edward's Theatre Company of 1984:

As an Edward's virgin, sitting in the Meeting House foyer an hour or so before they go on, talk inevitably turns to their long association with the venue and some of their past successes (including plays about imprisoned writers after which the audience has been reduced to tears) and you can’t help but wonder if this is setting expectations impossibly high.

From the moment you enter the theatre, Big Brother is watching you, whether from the telescreen that dominates the simple set or the two seated columns of cast members dressed in their party uniforms. An eerie electronic music hums in the background. Throughout the play this music is used to great effect, conjuring up the same mundane claustrophobia of an awful situation from which there is no escape that Adam’s Death of Klinghoffer managed at last year’s International Festival.

The use of space is impressive too. The dystopian film had wide open spaces and to get that sense in such a small theatre is no mean feat. This is helped by a wonderfully choreographed ‘chorus’ of actors who, in many ways, steal the show. Their mimed routines of the daily grind of life as tiny cogs in a vast machine is superb, and its repetition devastating.

Not everything works perfectly. When we first encounter a rat, it doesn’t seem this is truly Winston Smith’s worst fear. When Winston and Julia confess themselves to a party official, it seems a bit too rushed (such moments are perhaps inevitable when cutting a work down, but they are few).

Winston and Julia are convincing both as lovers and Winston in his despair at society. But in many ways the show is stolen by the supporting cast. The way in which the ‘chorus’ switch so effortlessly and convincingly from party workers, to prols, to thought police. The two children, desperately eager to witness an execution. The beauty of the prol woman (no more so than when she sits peeling the potatoes), captured every bit as elegantly as the film.

The production is most haunting, though, in its modern parallels. A party worker’s savouring of the reduction of the language yet further, and the possibilities this brings. The ‘two minutes hate’. But, perhaps most powerfully, when Smith’s interrogator talks of power as an end, not a means, one cannot help but think of certain politicians today.

It’s a production that leaves you utterly drained, if not in tears, and well understanding the comments in the foyer.

One last note, don’t waste a thought on how the rats will be brought off – when it comes it is both wonderful and chilling.

This was hotly followed by some dire news: what promised to be a wonderful concert from Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of St Luke'swas cancelled, owing to the sudden hysteria over an a plot to blow up airlines and which meant that musicians were not allowed to take their lethal cellos and tubas onto aeroplanes (they could trust them to the hold, but there are various reasons, from risk of loss, damage in handling and environmental conditions, why you simply wouldn't do this). Then home secretary John Reid was responsible for this scandal and will not be forgiven. The programme was to have included such works as the Siegfried Idyll and a late Mozart symphony (I forget which).

Indeed, it was a bad year for cancellations: the first performance of Troilus and Cresida had to be abandoned at half-time due to a malfunction in the complex stage apparatus. Fortunately, my ticket was booked for later in the week.

My 2006 International Festival did in the end get going with a double bill so good I went to see it twice (after all, I had nothing to do now on the night of the Runnicles concert). This was in the form of a Weill/Brecht double bill of The Seven Deadly Sins and The Lindbergh Flight:

I was at a stunning Brecht/Weill double bill (which is running and the Festival Theatre for the next two evenings, approximately two hours, at 7.15) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The fact that director Francois Girard is also a film director shows and aides this very much. Indeed, from a production standpoint this is one of the most satisfying operas I have been too.

As a work, The Lindbergh Flight is not the most satisfying in the catalogue. Celebrating the first transatlantic flight, it comes from early in the Brecht/Weill partnership and it could be argued this shows. Brecht's decision to introduce each part with an actor playing him shows that he likes the sound of his own voice rather too much and without enough cause. However, once the curtain rises all such doubts are removed. The set is stunning [sadly the pictures I linked to have been taken down from the EIF website].

The 'plane' moves in an arc from one side of the stage to the other, in front of the world map, as the drama progresses. There are so many nice touches - the 5 clocks, each an hour faster than the last, all moving slowly round. The countries that make up the backdrop are, in fact, in front of the rear screen onto which there are some excellent projections. It's well played and sung, but I suspect that with a poor production it would drag. This, however, is a joy to watch.

The Seven Deadly Sins is far superior, both in terms of the text and the music. I am a little reluctant to describe it as an opera, almost more a cross between opera and ballet.

The story tells of Anna I and II (essentially two halves of the same character). II is played by 7 different dancers, each of whom goes through a sin as Anna goes on her quest to earn money for her family back in their home state (as she does so their house rises at the back).

There is the bite that the music and lyrics of Brecht and Weill has at its best. Gun-Brit Barkmin is superb as Anna I and the choreography is a joy to watch (and I'm not normally much of a fan of ballet). The libretto is nice too.

Throughout both pieces, the playing of Opera de Lyon under Roberto Minczuk is excellent, as is the singing of the chorus. The set design of Francois Seguin also deserves a mention.

This is playing tomorrow and Wednesday and if you are in the area I urge you to go (I may even go and see it again now that I have a night off due to the St Luke's cancellation).

That's all for now, but there's plenty more to follow (including the legendary Mackerras/SCO Beethoven cycle, the Bruckner and Abbado's Magic Flute).

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