Tuesday 30 December 2014

Highs and Lows of 2014

It's that time of year again...and it hasn't been an especially vintage year...

Best Opera: Dialogues des Carmelites at the Royal Opera by a country mile. The only perfect marriage of production, work and performance this year. Honourable mention to Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera at the Barbican.

Worst Opera: There was plenty of indifferent stuff, particularly at the Royal Opera towards the end of the year where, thus far, the Holten regime is having more misses than hits, but nothing was truly awful.

Best Play: I saw a lot of indifferent theatre this year, and none of the London houses I regularly attend had an especially strong year, but one show stood out from it all – the stunning (and bafflingly ignored by other end of year round ups) My Night with Reg at the Donmar. A show that reminded, as so often, that strong characters and narrative still trump most everything else. It transfers to the West End in the new year and is unmissable. Honourable mention for EIF's The War in what was a uniquely good (in my 17 years experience) year for drama at the International Festival – visually stunning and ultimately moving.

Worst Play: Henry IV at the Donmar made a valiant effort to win in this category but just escapes by virtue of the presence of Harriet Walter. As a result the palm goes to a show I didn't review at the time, the dull, unconvincing Little Revolution at the Almeida.

Saturday 20 December 2014

The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida, or, Waiting in Vain for Revelation

I think I read this play at school, but it has not particularly stuck in my memory (I hadn't for example properly registered that “prick us do we not bleed” etc. is in it). I've only seen it staged once, in an Edinburgh Lyceum production of which I retain no particular memory. This performance convinced me that there are powerful and disturbing elements to the play. Unfortunately it also demonstrated that Rupert Goold as a director lacks the ability to make those elements tell.

My previous encounter with Goold and Shakespeare was his bafflingly over-praised kitchen-set Macbeth. His Merchant has more going for it but is, ultimately, not much more successful. This time Goold has relocated the play to Las Vegas. Or at least he's relocated about half the play there. After the interval, as the play darkens, although the basic set remains exactly the same (minus the slot machines, and with the Almeida's back wall exposed through the gaudy set) it is sadly unclear where we are, with unfortunate results for the play.

While the Vegas setting is being played up, the visuals (blue and gold colouring), the trappings (the aforementioned slot machines and card tables), the extras (Lancelot Gobbo's Elvis and a number of scantily clad women) present plenty of spectacle. The problem is there's insufficient behind it. For example. Antonio plays his opening scene with Bassanio seated at a card table losing chips. Presumably we're meant to link this with a wider narrative of ridiculous gambling – all those enterprises set forth, the insanity of the contract with Shylock. The programme notes, which I read afterwards, comment the play is sometimes seen as Shakespeare's “gay play” and looking back I can sort of see suggestions of this in Goold's reading. But none of it is fully developed, or knitted together into a convincing whole. Even more bizarre is Lorenzo's “abduction” of Jessica in which they are dressed up as the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman and Robin. There's no sense of the sort of mind or life story that either of them would need to come up with this scheme and, beneath that, their relationship is left frustratingly blank – what exactly is the feeling between them, why have they together agreed on this course of action? The result is that later Antonio's plight, and then Lorenzo/Jessica scenes where you feel Goold wants to suggest troubled relations don't pack the punch they ought because those well staged moments are built on such thin foundations. The same problem goes for just about every other character and relationship in the show.

Treasure Island at the National, or The Shallow Comedic Version

Shows often have a moment which encapsulates either everything that's right with them, or everything that's wrong. A recent example was the extraordinary dance sequence in the final act of My Night with Reg. In the National's new adaptation of Treasure Island, the moment comes in Act Two during the fight for the stockade (well I say fight but two bullets is about your lot). Those who've read the book will recall that as he's directing the defence Captain Smollett is hit, but not killed. In this adaptation he dies, sprawled on the front of the Olivier stage. It isn't just the textual liberty, nor the one dimensional nature of the writing of him which makes the moment go for nothing, but the ridiculously overdone chest wound with which make-up and costumes curse him – from Row D of the Stalls it was wholly unconvincing. When death becomes ludicrous in a pirate play you have, I would suggest, got a problem.

Now it is a long time since I read Treasure Island. And maybe I am misremembering it. But my recollection is of something which was very tense and exciting, with a strong sense of threat and convincing violence. Almost from the word go, this adaptation plays it for laughs. If I say there's more chill in the delivery of the Black Spot in Muppet Treasure Island (incidentally a film I love) you'll appreciate that things have gone sadly wrong here. Actually, comparing this to the Muppet version of the story is generally instructive. There's plenty of comedy there too – think of Sam the Eagle's terribly unsafe jolly boat, or Fozzie Bear's hapless Trelawney, or Stadtler and Waldorf saving the film by saving the pig and the frog or...I could go on and on. But the difference is that all their sillinesses are part of much deeper characterisations. There's so much more to them than just the comedic moments – whether it's Bryony Lavery's script or Polly Findley's direction, this staged version fails to make any of its adult characters (with passing but not sustained exceptions for Long John Silver and Ben Gunn) into anything other than shallow butts of jokes. As a result, and distinctly unlike in the original, I never had the slightest doubt that Jim (or Jemima) would win through in the end, and, more seriously, I increasingly felt that the various adults deserved to be killed because they were behaving with such impressive stupidity. Is there now some rule that a children's show should have no convincing adult characters in it – the National might next time like to call to mind His Dark Materials, full of powerful, rounded adult characters – and consider whether this rule needs a rethink. Incidentally, it also should be noted, that the jokes in this are generally not funny enough – leave out the payoff of the Mr Grey running gag and Ben Gunn's double identity and the pickings are regrettably thin.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

In Praise of Recognising and Rectifying a Mistake

Just under a month ago, the Edinburgh International Festival announced new booking arrangements for Festival 2015. First, that the programme would be released in two segments - concerts and recitals on 3rd February and the rest of the programme on 18th March. Second, that booking for the Festival would be similarly split. Here at Where's Runnicles we have long urged a return to earlier publication of information about the Festival programme (as used to occur during the McMaster era), so announcement of such earlier publication was very welcome. However, we were strongly opposed to the proposed staggering of booking which seemed to us to make more difficult rather than simplifying Festival planning (today's announcement suggests we were not alone). Personally as someone who travels some distance to attend the Festival, and whose Festival booking is a complex jigsaw trying to fit in concerts, staged opera, theatre and if I can find space a bit of dance I was especially concerned that the new arrangements would make much harder my kind of Festival. We raised these issues with the Festival via a number of avenues.

The Festival assured us that it was listening to concerns. In today's world, however, one does become cynical about that kind of statement. I was therefore both delighted and surprised to receive Fergus Linehan's announcement this evening that booking arrangements have been revised. Concerts and recitals will still be announced in February, but booking for them will not open until after the full programme has been released on 18th March.

We live in a society where organisations often seem reluctant either to admit they have made a mistake or to take meaningful action to remedy it. It therefore seemed important to publicly thank Fergus Linehan and the International Festival for responding so constructively on this issue. Personally, it's a relief that an obstacle to my Festival planning that I really wasn't looking forward to negotiating has been removed. Instead, I now look forward keenly to finding out what artistic riches the Festival has planned for 2015, and catching as many of them as possible.