Sunday 25 May 2014

Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne, or, Bigger Problems than Octavian

Since this production opened a week ago seemingly endless column inches, tweets etc. have been concerned with the appearance of Octavian in it, and whether certain words used by certain critics to describe this were justified. Having now seen the show, I agree that neither Tara Erraught's vocal performance, nor Jones's direction and Nicky Gillibrand's costuming of the character are unproblematic. I also think that this show has bigger problems.

Richard Jones's directorial approach does not produce a convincing vision of the work as a whole. Much of the design and the direction seems intended to imply that the story should not be taken too seriously. I found the garish wallpaper, and, in particular, the costumes, rendered it difficult to believe in the characters or their relations. There are some individual moments of silliness – the staging of the haunting in Act Three with zombies and the noose is ineffectively bizarre, the plays on smell in the first Octavian/Sophie meeting are unnecessarily crude – though they fit with an attitude that too often suggests Jones does not believe in the romance of the piece. The less said about Jones's attempt to suggest Mohammad is going to be in bed with the Marschallin after the curtain has fallen the better. Movement, for which Sarah Fahie is credited, is also problematic – Octavian and Sophie spend much of that first moment of meeting singing to the audience instead of to each other; Sophie is placed on an enormous table and subjected to a bidding war later in the same scene – yes, okay, I take the point, but it's crudely done and I failed to see why she simply didn't get down. Jones is at his worst directing the crowd scenes. When the orchestra is going wild leading up to the Marschallin's entrance in Act Three there's a sad lack of threatened riot on stage, a) because Jones has trapped a large number of people in a space that is far too small and b) because he's had them all bring in chairs and line up in rows (there is far too much ineffective business with chairs and couches in this production).

Tuesday 6 May 2014

King Charles III at the Almeida, or, An Unconvincing Fantasy

This attempt at a modern history play has been widely praised by other critics, is sold out for the remainder of its Almeida run, and is already being touted for West End transfer. As far as I'm concerned it has been overpraised.

Mike Bartlett, whose 13 at the National in 2012 also left me unimpressed, appears to have decided that he is up to imitation of Shakespeare on a grand scale. The title gives the first clue, the subject matter the second, the neo-Shakespearean verse writing the third. The results are problematic. Taking the plot first. The play deals with the immediate aftermath of Prince Charles's ascension to the throne. He decides to refuse royal assent to a bill regarding regulation of the press on the grounds that this is contrary to fundamental British freedoms. Before long this has escalated into monarchical dissolution of parliament (with Charles appearing in the precincts a la his Civil War namesake), violent clashes up and down the country, and a tank outside Buckingham Palace. My basic issue with all this was that I just did not find it convincing. In fact during the first half I was driven to considerable irritation by just how unconvincing I found it. If you're going to do a version of the future and you wish to use it to explore issues thoughtfully, as the second half suggests Bartlett wants to do, then failure to convince your audience that pretty nearly precisely this scenario could unfold is fatal. To give three instances of my problems. Firstly, while I agree that Charles is not the Queen and these secret consultations with ministers are troubling in terms of the proper constitutional order I don't believe that he's stupid and I therefore found it simply unbelievable that he would drive the country to the brink of civil war in this way – and particularly not over a bill for regulation of the press. Secondly, while our current class of politicians are a depressingly unprepossessing lot I still do not believe that any leader of the opposition would be stupid enough to abet a monarch in the proceeding shown here, involving a loss of power to the elected political leadership which would affect him should he succeed as a result in replacing the Prime Minister and which would be bound to be used against him in turn. Third, I find it equally difficult to believe that, in this day and age, nobody else would have done anything to stop Charles until the point in Act Two when William intervenes.