Friday 31 October 2014

Henry IV at the Donmar, or Phyllida Lloyd Doubles Down

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 28th October 2014.

Back at the end of 2012 Phyllida Lloyd staged Julius Caesar at the Donmar with an all female company (review here). Despite the best efforts of Harriet Walter as Brutus it was not a success. The all-female casting had nothing to do with this, the problem was Lloyd's bizarre concept of setting the evening in a women's prison. This evening suggests that Lloyd is not a director to change her mind. We're back for two pretty interminable hours in the same setting, with even less to redeem it than last time round.

My irritation with the whole enterprise began when I received an e-mail on Saturday informing me that the performance was going to take place in a secure premises on Earlham Street and that I must present myself at the Seven Dials Club (42 Earlham Street) in order to be directed to these premises. What this in practice means is that you enter via the back stairs of the Donmar rather than through the normal front of house areas, and are confronted by uniformed FoH staff clearly intended to be impersonating police officers. I was thankful that I had learned from Julius Caesar and purchased a seat in the Circle as the horrible grey plastic chairs which were inflicted on Stalls patrons for that production were once more in evidence. This whole charade is annoying and as far as I was concerned thoroughly ineffectual in terms of persuading me that I was inside a prison. I did not start the show feeling particularly warm towards the enterprise.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

I Due Foscari at the Royal, or, Just Because You Can Do Things Doesn't Mean You Should

When the first attack of premature enthusiasm struck Monday's audience, pretty much as soon as the tenor had finished his first aria, I feared we were in for a long night. And so it proved.

It did not surprise me that this was only the thirteenth performance of I Due Foscari at the Royal Opera House. It is not one of Verdi's masterpieces, though I do think it would be possible to make a more convincing case for it. The major problem with the work is that so little happens. Foscari's son Jacapo is condemned to exile from Venice early in Act 1 but takes until the middle of Act 3 to actually go. It must surely qualify as one of the longest departure scenes in operatic history. To fill in the somewhat lengthy gap between decision and execution Jacopo (Francesco Meli), Mrs Jacopo (Maria Agresta) and Father Jacopo (Placido Domingo) sing a number of arias and ensembles bemoaning the miserable situation in which they find themselves. As a rehearsal for later Verdian struggles between public duty and private feeling it's mildly interesting, as a dramatic narrative in itself it really isn't. This performance didn't have the finest line up of soloists but I suspect even with that it would be a struggle to make of this more than generic Verdi – pleasant to listen to but lacking the punch and depth of Traviata or Don Carlo or Falstaff. As a work it is just all rather unmemorable.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Gypsy at Chichester, or Lara's Turn

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th October 2014. It is not listed as a preview in the brochure but the Press Night does not take place till Tuesday 14th.

Gypsy is a nastier show than one first realises. I came to see this without knowing anything about the narrative and I kept waiting for things to come out right. Of course, this being a show with a Sondheim element to it, I should perhaps know better. That said, there is usually a redemptive element to his principle characters. I found it hard to see one in Momma Rose and thus, while I was moved by things in this show, they did not include her.

For those who don't know it, Gypsy tells the story of Momma Rose's (Imelda Staunton) insatiable attempts to craft a triumphant stage career first for her daughter June (Gemma Sutton) and then for her daughter Louise (Lara Pulver). Given that the final result, or at least one of them, is the appearance of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee it could be said that she succeeds. But the price is a high one.

Strictly speaking Gypsy is a musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim). But there are rather fewer standout numbers than the form usually commands. Many of the musical numbers are intentionally terrible (the stage performances of the troupe until you get to the actual appearance of Gypsy Rose Lee), and some of those intended, I assume, to be of a more standard kind are pretty forgettable (Mr Goldstone for example). My point is, however, that this doesn't matter the way it might because this is really for long sections much more a play with music rather than a standard musical, and as a work in that form it's powerful.

Taken at Midnight at Chichester, or A Well Crafted Visit to Familiar Territory

During the first half of this new play by Mark Hayhurst, I found it difficult not to compare the work to Chichester's most recent visit to Nazi territory – the chilling revival of Brecht's Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. Compared with that play, and despite the moments of brutality, there's a slight feeling of being on safe ground here. Good and bad are fairly clearly delineated, the differences between the three political prisoners imprisoned together feel contrived, and I agree with the critic who regarded it as just a bit too convenient that one of them happened to be carrying a false moustache. None of it is badly done but despite the cast's best efforts I felt uninvolved.

But after the interval one of those curious theatrical twists happened. Not in terms of the play which remains on fairly safe, familiar ground, but in terms of engaging me. Penelope Wilton playing Irmgard Litten has at last been allowed to send books to her imprisoned son. She describes going to see a bookseller and, in a moment which is madness in the new Germany, telling him who the books are destined for. The bookseller refuses to take any money. It's moving because it's such a small, almost pitiful gesture and yet, in a country in which you are no longer free to speak such things take on a strange resonance. The second thing that adds power to Act Two is the realisation that Wilton is not going to win. It's obviously deluded to imagine that she will, but not knowing the story one madly hopes for it. John Light's Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer with whom Wilton is forced to struggle, is convincingly enigmatic and thus fosters the delusion that there may be some sane Nazis. The final meeting between Wilton and Martin Hutson's Litten brutally snatches away any such escape.

Saturday 11 October 2014

David Watkin leaves the SCO

He plays with such huge commitment. He is a great inspiration to me, especially in Mozart.

I can't claim credit for those words, instead they belong to the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras, but I thoroughly endorse them and am greatly saddened to learn today that David Watkin, principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is leaving the ensemble.

When Watkin joined the SCO around 10 years ago, Mackerras would have already known him from his time as principal cello of both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia. At the same time. This hints straight away at his versatility: he is equally at home with a period cello as with a modern one. And it doesn't end there: during his tenure we've heard him direct the orchestra from the cello in Mozart; he has performed Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; he has been the soloist for concertos and Bach cello suites; and he has done the double of leading the cellos while also undertaking the continuo during performances of Mozart operas. And that's to say nothing of his recordings with the Eroica Quartet, the most recent of which have been fine discs of Mendelssohn's Octet and a pairing of Debussy and Ravel.

Mackerras and the SCO in action in Mozart's Haffner symphony