Saturday 20 October 2012

ENO's Julius Caesar, or, Undaunted by Past Disasters the Ship of Berry Sails Blithely On (to Yet Another Reef)

The vast majority of reviews of this production have been poor. But there is little sense from most critics that this is more than an individual flop for the company. To my mind it is symptomatic of the company's ongoing problems of artistic direction. This review will therefore deal both with this particular production, and those wider issues.

I could write a long review about the surface idiocies of this production: the slug, sorry egg, balancers, the de-tonguing of the giraffe, the inexplicable appearance of the garden hose. But this would distract from the central, fatal flaw, which on this showing ought to disqualify Michael Keegan-Doran from any further ventures outside of straight choreography. Keegan-Doran fundamentally appears either incapable of, or to have had no desire to, actually dirct his principal cast. Line after line is rendered ludicrous by their being no attempt to direct the performers in a way to render their interactions dramatically convincing. The direction affords none of the performers any depth – here and there some emotional connection is occasionally salvaged, by dint one suspects of the performers innate musicianship (and in one case real dramatic presence). But it is insufficient to salvage the evening.

The one area where Keegan-Doran's impact is all too evident is the choreography. Choreography married to Handel can make for an exceptional performance – see the current Glyndebourne production of this opera. But not here. Keegan-Doran's dance ensemble basically seem to be in a completely different show from the singers. They add nothing, except irritating distraction, to the evening. It is never clear who these people are, why they are there, or why, given that they are there, they are dancing – there is no dramatic or emotional benefit from their presence at all, and one is driven to the conclusion that Keegan-Doran, being an inexperienced and unconfident director retreated to the world he knows best (compare with Mike Figgis's attempt to direct an opera in the 2010-11 ENO season). 

Sunday 14 October 2012

King Lear at the Almeida, or, The Star's In Place But Not Much Else

Back at the tail end of last year I had this down as one of the shows I was most looking forward to in 2012, but I'm afraid this is a show that just doesn't live up to its advance prospects, for all sorts of reasons.

The first big problem is the design where Tom Scutt seems to have come over all Christopher Marthaler. This is the dullest thing to look at for three hours since the dreadful Bayreuth Tristan. The stage is basically bare for the entire show – apart from occasional pieces of furniture and the enormous and as far as I could see wholly pointless dead fox strung up at the back at one point in Act One. There is really no meaningful attempt to locate the action anywhere concrete – beyond some kind of ruined castle at some undetermined point. Scutt claims in his programme notes that “If you try and pin it [Lear] down or set it too tightly in a time and a place, it kicks like a mule.” Frankly, I wish it had kicked him harder.

If you're going to drain away the feeling of concrete and differentiated places from a production then you have to be able to replace them with more than usually effective management of your ensemble. They are going to have to create the world by speech and movement which the production has decided not to attempt. Unfortunately Michael Attenborough's direction falls down here. There's a sad lack of those crucial moments of tension that make truly great theatre. Indeed, one almost feels after a while as if one is watching old style stand and deliver. Moments in the second half when, for example, Goneril is being affectionate with Edmund, stand out starkly because there's not enough of such loaded physical connection elsewhere in the performance. The rare occasions when clear direction is in evidence tend to the bizarre. Other critics have commented that Attenborough's idea seems to be that Lear has sexually abused his elder daughters. This is brought out in one or two places but nowhere near consistently enough to make it work. In any case I am far from convinced that this is a viable interpretation – I find it difficult to see how we can sympathise with Lear as we really need to as the play goes on, if he has committed so vile a crime – and indeed one further wonders given that implication why Cordelia dotes on him. In short, on this showing at any rate, it is an interpretation that does too much violence to other parts of the text with not enough return from the places that it does illuminate. Elsewhere I felt too often that the text was passing Attenborough by – for example that marvellous moment when the Fool replays the “Nothing will come of Nothing” exchange which seems to me the point when Lear begins to recognise his folly goes for nothing in this staging.

Call Me Madam at the Union, or, Just Not Quite Enough Stars

As I can't be whole-heartedly enthusiastic about this revival, let me start with a word of praise for the Union's upcoming schedule, which like so much non-West End stuff seems to get little notice in the mainstream press or indeed elsewhere in the blogosphere. I only hope fellow musical theatre afficionados are paying attention. Coming up there in the next three months we have Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier and Mary Rodgers's Once Upon a Mattress – I can't recall either having been staged in London in my memory, though doubtless somebody will correct me. Whatever else you do in the next few months, if you're a musical theatre fan, give the tiresome long-running nonsense in the West End a miss and head out to Southwark.

On balance you should also head out there for the venue's current production of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. You may know this from the film version which stars Ethel Merman (who originated the role of Mrs Sally Adams on stage) and the incomparable Donald O'Connor (better known as Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain). My recollection of the film was of a patchy experience made by the stars rather than the show, and on the whole the same is true of this production – except that it just hasn't got quite enough stars to achieve the same effect.

The best thing in this performance is Lucy Williamson's performance in the Ethel Merman part. Williamson's particular brilliance in this show is that she manages at pretty much every turn to transcend its limitations. There are little bits of business – gestures, expressions, asides which go to make up a great characterisation. She draws the eye when she's onstage and is consistently funny to watch. If Williamson were on stage the whole time the show would be pretty triumphant. Unfortunately she isn't.