Friday 6 January 2012

Mike Bartlett's 13 at the National, or, He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!

It was instructive to see this play two days after the revival of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock currently playing in the Lyttelton. Both plays deal with similar issues – politics, war, power and the lack of power. Unfortunately, O'Casey is a great playwright, Bartlett on this evidence, isn't.

This is another play about issues. A war between the West and Iran is looming, an unpopular government is in office, students are rioting over fees. The difficulties I had with this piece, as a play, may be illustrated by the fact that it pretty much succeeded in making me not give a damn about any of these issues. This is because the issues combine with the sheer number of characters to sink those characters. Bartlett fails to pull in a tight enough focus on a small enough group of characters to give them sufficient depth to be convincing, for this member of the audience at any rate. Again, it was instructive to compare 13 with its multiplicity of characters and stories with O'Casey's tightly focused approach. Nor is it simply a question of characters having insufficient time on stage to build a connection with the audience, they also have a collective tendency to end up as mouthpieces. That is, they talk at you in a manner that often feels endless. Yes they present a variety of perspectives (pro and anti-war; Tory and left-wing; religious and aethiest) but almost nobody in this play is ever permitted by the playwright to ask any telling questions of anybody else. They wait for the other person to stop monologuing, and then they get a turn. On these issues, I could get this impersonal experience by listening to the Today programme in the comfort of my living room and with the additional benefit of being able to let off steam by shouting at the radio.

I did in fact spend much of the first act wanting to yell at John, the Welsh Messiah: “He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy”. This messianic figure is never questioned by any of the poor lost souls wandering around after him. Maybe this reflects the reality of followers of cults, but all I can say is it's a theatrical device that is to start with very irritating and eventually just dull.

Monday 2 January 2012

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Royal Opera, or, A Little in the Shadow of Past Glories

It came as something of a shock to me to discover from the programme note that this production was first done (and I first saw it) in 1993, and that there have already been three revivals. This was likely its final outing and although it doesn't command as a total experience as it did when I saw it in 1993 and 1997, and the experience was further shadowed by the magnificence of McVicar's recent Glyndebourne production, there is still much to enjoy both visually and musically.

The two strongest performers musically and dramatically are Toby Spence (David) and Wolfgang Koch (Hans Sachs). Spence is a lively presence whenever he's on stage, an effective actor with the measure of both the comical and serious sides of the part and sings it very finely. Koch is very good vocally, bringing real (and in my view needed) heft to the street song of Act Two, and having the stamina to sustain the taxing Act Three. Sachs is a part that for true greatness needs a great singing actor and Koch has the makings of that greatness – he improved steadily as the performance progressed and moved me in Act Three especially. If he could conquer his tendency to the declamatory gesture and be a little less obvious in his relations with the audience it would be a really fine performance, if not yet in Gerald Finley's league (in acting terms).

The rest of the cast were generally weaker, but I think this was linked in some cases to the fact that Vick's staging seen in the light of McVicar's just does not have the same depth of characterisation. Thus Peter Coleman-Wright was not as good as my memory of Thomas Allen in the part, nor did he erase Kranzle at Glyndebourne, but some of this is to do with the fact that the production doesn't draw him as strongly, in particularly McVicar's decision to keep him on stage during the Prize Song and through almost to the end packs much more dramatic punch than Vick's having him depart after his failure. It should perhaps be noted here, since I often complain about lack of textual fidelity, that in this instance Vick is of course being faithful and McVicar is not – I still think McVicar's departure was entirely justified!