Sunday 26 August 2012

EIF 2012 – The Rape of Lucrece, or, I'll Tell Thee a Tale to Bind Thee

This was my last International Festival drama for this year, and by goodness it was a marvellous way to finish. After one too many over elaborate and dull nonsenses, this performance is a reminder that to create great theatre you don't need more than a fine text (Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece) and a world class singing actress (Camille O'Sullivan).

O'Sullivan like Barry McGovern in Watt knows the dynamic of story telling. At the beginning she has that quiet authority of the great narrator leading you into the labyrinth. She has the art of voice and gesture which means that throughout the story even though the stage is basically bare you really feel that you see the defiled bed, the hapless Lucrece, the lust filled Tarquin. She switches effortlessly from the outside authority to the three principal characters of Lucrece, Tarquin and Lucretius (Lucrece's despairing father who has a powerful speech towards the close). She also makes you feel the weight of fate – the balance in the story that on some level longs to hold back the disaster and knows that it must come.

The story is delivered in a mixture of speech and song which I found wholly compelling and very moving. But I think the heart of O'Sullivan's achievement is that she can really deliver Shakespeare – this is far more difficult and far less common than you might imagine. But O'Sullivan really knows how to make the phrases live, she is consistently spot on with which words to give weight to, which phrases to linger on.

EIF 2012 – A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like It), or, Theatre Like a Broken Pencil (2)

As I descended the stairs of the Kings Theatre after this tedious matinee I heard a fellow audience member describe this show as a Russian Revolution. The temptation to utter a sharp retort was exceedingly strong, but I resisted. There is nothing revolutionary about this show. It is another tedious exposition of many tired cliches of the modern theatre director which have previously been more than sufficiently exhibited in other offerings of the International Festival's Drama programme.

Director Dmitry Krymov follows in the footsteps of Silviu Purcarete. Like Purcarete with Swift, Krymov appears for reasons not wholly clear to be unable to face staging Shakespeare's play complete. He therefore resorts to an alternative we have often seen before – he'll attempt only a small section of the whole. The section Krymov has chosen is the Mechanicals play. In the Shakespeare I shouldn't think this can last more than half an hour, in Krymov's hands it is elongated to an hour and forty minutes. You may possibly be thinking that there cannot be enough material in the Mechanicals play to sustain such an extension and you would be absolutely right.

This is even more the case because Krymov is not in fact interested in delivering much of Shakespeare's text at all – vast swathes of this play are textless, with occasional interventions from the Duke's court (ranged along the side of the extended stage and in the boxes) who don't succeed in being funnier than their Shakespearean counterparts who were not terribly funny to start with.

EIF 2012 – Les Nuafrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores), or Much That Is Stunning But There Remains a But

Before I start in on this review I must be very clear. Unless Mills can afford to invite Mnouchkine back again you are unlikely to see anything like this in the UK again in a hurry. I unequivocally urge you to get a ticket if you can and experience it despite the overall reservations I shall make in the course of this review about the show. This justifies the trek to Ingliston as neither of Mills's other two shows there have done.

This show takes place on a vast stage which is visually very striking. We are in an enormous rooftop space above a restaurant somewhere in Paris (I think) on the eve of the First World War. Sets manouvred by the cast appear and disappear from the rooms off stage and from the rear curtained off portion of the main area. In the centre a complex system of pulleys and counterweights is constantly in use to suspend surtitle screen, actors and other elements of the design. The attention to detail in the visuals throughout this epic recalled to my mind some of the lavish toys from the film of that name, and the theatre as constructed in Moulin Rouge. But these aren't things I can recall ever seeing on a British stage.

The conceit of the show is that filmmakers who have walked out of the leading French company have taken over this space to make a film based on an unpublished Jules Verne novel Les Nuafrages du Fol Espoir. Although the programme argues that the making of nine silent film episodes is interpolated within the overall story of the making of the film in practice the piece is dominated by those filmmaking episodes and they are much the strongest element. The brilliancy of their evocation – shipwrecks, howling wastelands, falling snow, birds, men rowing small canoes across the stage – cannot really be described in prose but has to be witnessed. It is unquestionably a magnificent achievement.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

EIF 2012 – Villa+Discurso, or, A Glass Half Full Evening

The first half of this evening's double bill is an excellent piece of theatre. Three women debate what should be done with the villa of the title where torturing and killing took place under the Pinochet dictatorship. Certain aspects of the piece could so easily lead it into the kind of desiccated territory inhabited by some of the deconstructionist theatre showcased elsewhere in this year's festival – most notably the fact that the three characters are to an extent denied individuality. They are all called Alejandra, what backstory we do learn about them (up until the final moments) is often subsequently called into question. But their doubtful characters, the question mark over their individuality does not end up lessening their humanity and crucially does not stop them from engaging the audience's emotions – or at least did not prevent my emotions from being engaged.

The play is also concerned with a large theme – how do you come to terms with this legacy of torture, of death. But it doesn't get sunk by that theme – rather it is by turns both solemn and playful. There are several set pieces of real poetry as the women defend particular positions – should the Villa be re-created exactly as it was, should it be turned into a museum? But there is also a wonderful self mocking section which points out that everybody who comes there will interpret it differently – laugh at it, cry etc. It's also a gentle mockery of writing a play about it but done with a wit that similar interludes such as Marthaler's completely lacked.

Above all, the play is a reminder that even with this awful legacy so forcefully before them humans do not necessarily become better people. The three women are met in committee because the larger group in charge of the project have failed to reach agreement. Pretty soon these three are also at daggers drawn, there are unpleasant attempts at manipulation, even momentary flare ups of violence. The gulf between the women and the world whose remembrance they are grappling with proves not to be as wide as one might wish to imagine.

Monday 20 August 2012

EIF 2012 – David et Jonathas, or, A Surprisingly Moving Evening

Regular readers will know that I do have a prejudice as a reviewer. Well actually I probably have a number of prejudices but there is one thing I care about more than anything else. I want a performance to engage my emotions. I want to care. For this reason I have even got more out of shows that have made me violently angry than shows in which I have simply been bored (neither of which circumstances I hasten to add applied to this one). I did not expect to be moved by this evening's opera, Charpentier's little known David et Jonathas. I don't usually care for music of that vintage and I booked with my completionist hat on rather than out of a strong desire to see the piece. Yet, as the evening drew on, and as I conquered my initial attack of exhaustion (brought on by yesterday's late night jaunt up Arthur's Seat) I found the work increasingly powerful.

The plot is Biblical and somewhat muddled but the main things you need to know are that Saul is jealous of David and will indeed end up being replaced by him, and David and Jonathas (Saul's son) are in love, and it will all end badly.

The staging, by Andreas Homoki is a bit uneven. The set is basically a confined wooden box which can be broken up into several rooms, and with moveable walls to adjust the spaces with psychological implications for different characters which are clearer at some points than others. The movement of walls is not unreminiscent of some of Christoph Loy's recent productions (and the bits of business with chairs reminded of Marthaler) – clearly these are in elements in current European opera production, but fortunately neither are irritatingly distracting. Homoki's management of his cast is also uneven. There are some very effective images – for example at the height of Saul's torment he finds himself surrounded by images of his wife – but equally tension in staging and movement is often allowed to dissipate. But when Homoki is at his best he really nails it – the moments following Jonathas's death, and the hollowness of the crowning of David are spot on.

EIF 2012 - Gergiev and the LSO's Brahms and Szymanowski residence

This four concert series was one of the longer festival residences I can remember. In the past, it has sometimes been the case that after such a sustained exposure to a single group of artists one can tire of them. So it is pleasing to report that after four consecutive nights of Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra surveying the symphonies of Brahms and Szymanowski, as well as the concertos of the latter, such fatigue was not in evidence.

Brahms and Szymanowski were perhaps not the most obvious pairing, and even after the cycle they remain so. That is not to say the two composers sat together uneasily, in general the programmes fitted well, but rather that their combined presence didn't appear to offer great insight into each other's works.

Going into the cycle, I had misgivings about the Brahms. While I admire much of his work, I do not always get on with Gergiev's interpretations. For example, although it is well regarded in some quarters, I cannot stand his Mahler. Fortunately, such concerns were largely misplaced. This was helped to a great extent by the exceptional playing of the LSO. I fear in the past I have not rated them quite as highly as they deserve, though this is because I normally hear them in the horribly unflattering acoustic of the Barbican. In the Usher Hall, the quality of their string sound was really a treat, especially when playing at fully strength. The same must be said of the winds, and these performances brought out many details in Brahms' writing for them more clearly than I've noticed before. Indeed, technically speaking, over four nights there was little to fault in the whole orchestra.

EIF 2012 - Gulliver's Travels, or, In Which the Clothes Are Once Again Insufficient For the Emperor

This latest loose version of a classic text offers something of an advance over Meine faire Dame. It has at least got something to substitute for the character and narrative which it has, in the typical manner of the modern European theatre director, decided to dispense with. In fact it has about 45 minutes worth of substitute material. Unfortunately this show lasts for an hour and a half.

Director Silviu Purcarete is also refreshingly, almost amusingly honest about his approach. One of the early images (after a horse has been led round the stage – an animal presence which is justified in the final image but not here) is of a man clearly intended to be Swift/Gulliver being knocked out by a company member, and the book from which he is about to read ripped to shreds. No one can say that Purcarete has not made his intentions clear.

Pucarete then picks a single aspect of Swift's book – the concept of the Yahoos and spends the rest of the show indicating that man is a brutish unpleasant beast through a series of tableaux. Some of this is very visually striking – especially the shadowplay, and the chorus acting as miniatures being played with by a human. But nearly all the episodes (especially the final one which is rather sub Einstein on the Beach) outstay their welcome, and there is too much hanging around between them. Above all, they have nothing to say beyond repeating the basic point, which is why I suggest that the whole thing would have been much stronger condensed to about half the length.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

EIF 2012 – Meine faire Dame, or Theatre Like a Broken Pencil

Let us start with the positives. There were some funny moments. Some of the music was well sung. The performers themselves can't be faulted. But overall this was dull, over-long and self indulgent. It was, in short, a classic example of deconstruction theatre.

The EIF programme note may lead you to believe that this is going to be a deconstruction of My Fair Lady. This material lasts Christoph Marthaler for about half of this two hour show. To fill up the rest he turns to among other things bits of Lohengrin, The Magic Flute, various pop songs and, I think, Lottie in Weimar. You may wonder how these elements fit together. The answer is that they don't really.

Each episode (for this is largely a show of episodes) outstays its welcome. Some moments (the girl with a problem getting down the stairs for instance) could be really funny but are run over and over again until the life has been sucked out of them. The overall effect is typical of this kind of deconstruction theatre. No meaningful relationships are created between the characters, in the audience I was left feeling emotionally cold.

EIF 2012 – 2008: Macbeth, or Every Cliché in the Reinvented Classics Book and All to No Avail

Regular readers may recall that one of the first crims in my staging failures book is dullness. I take my hat off to this production – it uses every cliché in the Reinvented Classics book and yet most of it ends up being pretty boring.

Before we get to the various sillinesses (like the inexplicable rabbit and magician) let us begin with the far more fundamental problem. Delivery of the text in this production is diabolical. It's not quite so infuriatingly slow as in the legendary American Repertory Theatre Three Sisters but it is a damn close run thing. There is also the bizarre additional issue that the company seems to believe that doing silly voices or other vocal effects (the version of “Sir, Yes, Sir” became especially annoying) is dramatically effective in itself. It isn't. Pretty rapidly I ceased to believe a word anybody was saying and consequently to give a damn about any of the protagonists.

The staging is proof that you can throw shedloads of money at a production to no good effect. It consists of an architecturally muddled house of four rooms. We may possibly be somewhere in the Middle East but this is never established with any conviction. Scenes take place across the four rooms and a couple of balconies with little evident reason as to why they do so. Creation of effective tension between performers through movement and stillness (in other words basic stagecraft) is depressingly thin. The various explosions and gunfire, impressive in themselves though the former in particular were, in practice did little than to momentarily arouse me from the torpor into which the rest of this tedious performance was dragging me.

EIF 2012 – Samuel Beckett's Watt, or, A Brief Report of a Little Gem

This show is proof of a remark I have made before that very often simple is best. It consists of what I suppose one could call edited highlights of Samuel Beckett's novel Watt performed by Barry McGovern on an almost bare Royal Lyceum stage.

The novel tells the tale of Watt, his journey by train to the house of Mr Knott where he is to work, his life there and his eventual departure. Much of the pleasure is derived simply from Beckett's tongue twisting word games which McGovern brings off with real dexterity helped by his voice being one which I could listen to for hours.

For much of the show it feels funny, and inconsequential. But as the show reaches its conclusion one realises the story actually has a moving depth, and a lot to say beneath the word games about fundamental human dilemmas.

Sadly the run has ended so I can't urge you to catch this, but those outside Edinburgh should look out for future touring performances.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

EIF 2012 – In Which First Music then a Musician Fail to Convince Me

Two brief reports follow on performances which for different reasons just didn't carry me off.

Greyfriars – His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts and Concerto Palatino

Early Music has been a regular feature of the International Festival during Jonathan Mills's directorship. Generally speaking this is not an era of classical music that does much for me and I have consequently not attended many of the concerts in this strand over the last few years. However, I've always been intrigued by the idea of an ensemble of Sagbutts and Cornetts so I decided to give this performance a try.

The concert celebrated the 400th anniversary the day before of the death of Giovanni Gabrieli with an hour long selection of his instrumental pieces featuring various combinations of sackbut (the predecessor of the trombone) and cornetts – described in the programme note as “made of wood [with] finger-holes (like a woodwind instrument) but [using] the cup mouthpiece more often associated with brass ones.” The selections were taken from three collections of Gabrieli's music – the Symphoniae sacrae (1597), the Canzoni per sonare (1608) and the posthumously published Canzone e sonate (1615).

The quality of the playing was excellent and I found more to interest me in the pieces of later date which sounded more complex musically to my unfamiliar ears. That said an hour of this sound world was quite sufficient for me. I'm interested to have heard these performers once but I don't feel I need to hurry to hear them again. This is not a comment on them, but on myself – it rather proved to me that early music is just not really my cup of tea.

EIF 2012 – Opera North's The Makropulos Case

When the Festival brochure came out this was one of the show's I hesitated about. I wasn't at that stage sure how long I was going to come up for, I could (transport permitting) see it in Nottingham in the autumn, and I had recently seen the ENO revival of this opera. Suffice it to say that I was extremely glad I decided to join my brother at last night's performance.

Opera North has very strong recent pedigree in Janacek, as I noted when I previewed the opera programme, including a marvellous From the House of the Dead last year. This production continues in that fine vein – especially on the musical side - making this a worthy return visit to the Festival for them.

The opera is performed in English, and with one slight exception which I'll come on to, this is an entirely happy decision contributing to the real dramatic punch of the evening. The company's diction is mainly excellent, with the text delivered clearly and with point. This is an opera which, with its large number of medium sized parts, needs a really strong ensemble, and Opera North have assembled one including Paul Nilon (Albert Gregor), James Creswell (Kolenaty) and Stephanie Corley (Kristina). The only singer who is not wholly satisfactory is Yiva Kihlberg's Emilia Marty. She doesn't quite have either the stage or vocal presence to dominate proceedings in the way the character should and as Cheryl Barker did for Mackerras in the original run of ENO's current production. Part of the problem is I think that she, unlike the rest of the cast, is not wholly comfortable with the English – or at least she didn't sound wholly comfortable – and I would be interested to hear her perform the role in Czech. But too much stress should not be placed on this,  – it is a very creditable attempt and there is much to appreciate in her performance.

Monday 13 August 2012

EIF 2012 - Waiting for Orestes, or, A Pale Imitation

Before setting out for this performance I was hopeful. The source material – the myth of Elektra - is dramatic stuff, and I had seen Asian theatre at last year's festival which was enthralling. Sadly this one makes for a dull 75 minutes.

According to the programme note Tadashi Suzuki, whose company this was, thinks that “all the world is a hospital” and had consequently set the drama in one. If he does this for all his shows, as said note seems to imply, I can't help thinking the novelty must have worn off some time ago. From my perspective this setting did nothing to illuminate the drama.

The best of this performance comes in the first ten minutes. The chorus appear in wheel chairs and execute a number of manouvers about the stage culminating in a very fast circuit round and round before crashing off stage left. This was visually quite striking, but it completely escaped me what relationship it was supposed to have to the story proper.

Sunday 12 August 2012

EIF 2012 - Here's Runnicles with Strauss's Alpensinfonie

After Friday's opening damp squib, it was fortunate that the man himself was on hand with the sort of work genuinely capable of blowing the doors off buildings: Richard Strauss's Alpensinfonie. The contrast with the Delius could hardly be more stark as Strauss employs similarly epic forces but orchestrates them to create jaw-dropping effects and vistas as he takes the listener on a climb through the alps.

In the wrong hands, the symphony can feel too episodic but with a Strauss conductor of the calibre of Runnicles such was never likely to be the case, and sure enough the music and narrative flowed smoothly and naturally. As the orchestra led us higher up the mountain they unveiled stunning alpine scene after stunning alpine scene. About the only reservation would be that the opening and closing nachts were not quite as pin drop quiet as needed for ultimate effect.

The piece places significant demands on the players, most notable the brass who have no shortage of the exposed entries. Here the BBC SSO acquitted themselves superbly, joined, it must be noted, by what must have been most of the professional brass players in Scotland. It wouldn't really be a Runnicles concert without some superbly placed offstage brass, and true to form a substantial battery of players had been located just outside the doors of the grand circle, creating a wonderful stereo effect where we were seated.

EIF 2012 - Delius's A Mass of Life

When hearing a live performance of a neglected choral epic there are broadly speaking two reactions, either "why isn't this performed more often" (e.g. Sibelius's Kullervo) or "that's been justly neglected". Delius's A Mass of Life fell firmly into the latter category, as well making a strong running for the title of most ironically named piece, seeming neither to effectively celebrate life nor contain a significant quantity of it.

It must be stressed that, for the most part, this wasn't the fault of the performers. The RSNO are generally a good orchestra and tend to be on the top of their game when under the baton of Andrew Davis as they were for this. Yet try as they might, they were unable to resuscitate Delius's score which remained stubbornly bland and devoid of emotion. They were joined by the festival chorus who didn't impress quite as much as they have done in some recent performances, though I am reluctant to criticise them too much since Delius's writing didn't seem designed to flatter them. The weak link in terms of performance was the quartet of soloists, particularly baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann who seemed a little strained, though in part this may have been because he had by far the most to do. And even if you assembled the finest fantasy quartet in musical history it wouldn't make this work a much more appealing prospect.

The most significant flaw is probably Delius's inability to set text effectively. True, Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra is a pretty mad affair but it is not without its moments, no more so than with "the world is deep" which Mahler sets so effectively in his third symphony, leaving you to feel as though the world has opened up to swallow you; Delius might as well be expressing a preference for the extent to which sandwiches should be filled. Elsewhere the bariton sings of the pangs of his heart, not that you would have any clue of that from the music.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Lohengrin at Bayreuth, or, Briefly Rising Above the Rats

For one all too brief scene two singers in this production rise about its lunacies. This blessed occurrence happens in Act Three Scene One. After the opening the chorus are not on stage and we have just the interaction between Klaus Florian Vogt's Lohengin and Annette Dasch's Elsa. The set is still not without its problems – I didn't think the cordoning off of the bed as if it was an art exhibit or the emergence of the swan boat from within the bed added anything to the scene – but for virtually the only time in the evening Vogt and Dasch were allowed to explore the relationship between their two characters without a lot of pointless busyness disrupting the engagement of the characters. For that one scene staging was in harmony with music. It was a telling illustration of just what a great house Bayreuth could be if they actually hired directors interested in achieving this on a more regular basis.

Unfortunately, as will now be clear, the rest of the opera does not match this – at least for me. It is not as awful a production as Marthaler's Tristan for two reasons – the principals are allowed to interact with each other most of the time and there is a certain fascination from trying to work out what the hell director Hans Neuenfels is trying to say, but as I found the former was surrounded by the silliness of the latter and I found it impossible to discern what the point of the latter was it was a pretty close run thing.

According to people I talked with at the interval the setting is supposed to be an animal testing laboratory in which Lohengrin is the only normal person. Consequently the chorus are all dressed as white, black or pink (Elsa's bridesmaids) rats. There are also a number of people wandering around in blue nuclear protection suits. The fact that Lohengrin is not from this place is indicated by his spending the Act One prelude trying to break into it. Quite why he wanted to break into it was never established and while I was watching this dumb show it was not in fact clear to me that that was what he was doing. What any of the rest of them are doing in an animal testing laboratory, what their roles are there or how any of this setting is supposed to illuminate text or music was not apparent to me either.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Tristan and Isolde at Bayreuth, or I Don't Care What The Text Says, Ignore Each Other!

The director of this production, Christopher Marthaler, makes his Edinburgh International Festival debut next week. According to the Festival, Marthaler is one of Europe's leading and most influential directors whose work has rarely been seen in Britain. All I can say is that if this production is a fair sample of that work then the less we see of him in UK houses the better.

Let us start however with the positives. Musically this was a very fine performance. Indeed after Act One I frequently closed my eyes and this improved the evening considerably. This was my first experience of Bayreuth. It is very clear that there is a distinct difference musically in terms of how Wagner sounds here as against other houses. Most notably the balance between voices and orchestra is rarely a problem – in fact just occasionally I felt the voices were over-favoured. The acoustic also gives a wonderful clarity to the orchestral sound – I felt I heard individual lines in the orchestra more clearly than I recall doing in other houses.

The stand out singer was Irene Theorin's Isolde. I was previously due to hear her in the ENO revival of Parsifal from which she withdrew, but apart from that if she has sung in the UK I have managed to miss her. I will be keeping a close eye out for her from now on, and UK houses should be rushing to engage her. She has a marvellous Wagner voice – warm, rich, ringingly powerful but not losing it in the quieter passages and tireless. She is also an excellent actress and did her level best to transcend the follies of the production.

Friday 3 August 2012

National Theatre's Curious Incident, or, The Lies We Tell

Note: This is a review of the final preview on Wed 1st August. The press night took place yesterday, Thurs 2nd August.

I would have liked to take an audience straw poll after this show to find out what percentage had read the book, and then to discover how they found it. I have not read the book, so I was able to enjoy this show simply as a play and after a few moments of doubt at the beginning I was swept along.

On the face of it the narrative concerns the struggle of Christopher, who has Asberger's Syndrome, to solve a number of mysteries in his life – it starts out as the mystery of the death of his next door neighbour's dog but becomes about rather more than that. Most poignantly it's about the effect of having a child like that on a marriage, and about the lies we are capable of telling even, perhaps especially, to those we love when we are in pain. I won't give away any more than that because I don't want to spoil the story for anybody else who may see it not having read the book.

This story is brought to life by some superb acting. The central role of Christopher is played by Luke Treadaway, and I found him completely convincing. There's the striking mix of knowledgeable assurance in the areas about which he knows far more than the 'ordinary' people he encounters, but the production also brings out the overwhelming impact on him of new experiences like the, for most of us, simple business of train travel. His parents Ed and Judy are played by Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker. Both are very good but I would especially single out Ritter. The way in which his pain, desperation and guilt are gradully revealed is powerfully done. In the very first moments I was doubtful about Niahm Cusack's Siobhan – this is because it appears as if large chunks of the play are going to be narrated by her and something about her initial vocal tone grated for me -  but fortunately this is not the way the adaptation goes and Cusack's performance after that moment was spot on. Behind them is a six strong ensemble who perform multiple roles – all to a high standard.