Tuesday 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera, or, Not an Experience I Care to Repeat (On-stage or Off)

This evening started indifferently, became increasingly unconvincing, and during the last two acts was overshadowed by an audience experience the like of which I have never seen in twenty plus years of opera going. I would be happy if I could think I should never see anything like it again. While the increasingly bizarre production stumbled on, and the audience atmosphere worsened, the performers on stage and in the pit made a valiant attempt with largely high quality musical performances to rescue matters, but it was not enough.

The best of the evening it will already be clear, was musical, and even that struggled against the lifeless production during the first two acts. In Acts Three and Four, and particularly after the outbreaks in the auditorium which we'll come back to, the perfomers seemed to raise their game and find in the music some of the electricity so sadly absent from most of the production. John Osborn (Melcthal) sang especially finely (and deserves high praise simply for keeping going at the start of Act Four ). He and Malin Bystrom (Mathilde) also managed to find additional passion in their Act Three duet despite the best efforts of the director to confuse matters. Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell) didn't come across as strongly as I'd have expected early on, but again gave a fine performance in the last two acts. Among the minor roles I particularly enjoyed Enkelejda Sjikosa's Hedwige, but they were all solidly taken. Both Orchestra and Chorus battled gamely against the distractions and incoherencies of the staging. In the first two acts Pappano's conducting seemed somewhat infected by the leaden quality of what was going on in front of him, after that he located the needed drama.

Sunday 7 June 2015

Waiting for Godot at the Barbican, or, An Outstanding Evening

Owing to the Edinburgh International Festival in recent years I'd already discovered, contrary to what I'd expected, that I enjoy Beckett on stage. It was primarily for that reason that I booked to see Waiting for Godot for the first time in this run of performances by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican. I hoped it would be good, I did not anticipate such a hilarious, moving and quite simply totally compelling evening.

Having now actually seen it on stage what seems to be the standard joke about it – that nothing happens, twice – seems the more puzzling. To my mind at least there's a great deal going on. The basic plot (as most readers will probably know) involves Vladimir and Estragon waiting through two days for Godot who, needless to say, never arrives. On both days some of the time spent waiting is occupied by the passing through the possible meeting place of Pozzo and Lucky. The premise itself (of waiting for Godot) is surely one of the finest running gags in the history of theatre – the more so as it becomes laced with an ever increasing, at times almost unhinged, desperation. And behind it, there's an extraordinary richness of ideas – about how difficult it is to live as an individual, the equally potentially ghastly problem of and yet indispensible need for companionship, the yearning for something beyond the world we see in front of us. At the same time, the play is a superb send up of the whole ludicrous idea of putting plays on stage in the first place. That it manages to do this so sharply, while being equally capable of chilling the viewer is testimony to a vital contrast to the many more recent practitioners who've attempted similar sending up. Beckett's mockery, unlike many would be successors, is never dismissive or contemptuous of the form. He makes us laugh at ourselves as viewers and then, suddenly, he reminds us precisely why we're still there.

Oresteia at the Almeida, or, Something of a Trial for All Concerned

Note: This is a review of a preview performance on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. The Press Night took place on Friday 5th June 2015.

There's a moment in Act 4 of this performance, by which point Orestes is being tried for his crimes, when the judge (representing an interminable list of Gods) asks the audience (we are clearly intended to think of ourselves as part of the court) whether they have any objections. It was mainly the fact that the performance had by then been going on for some 3hrs and 15mins that restrained me from responding.

Robert Icke here performs fairly radical surgery on Aeschylus's three plays in order to get them into one evening (it does not even so justify its 3.5hr+ running time). But he is also, as a number of other recent London versions of the Greeks have been, concerned to assert the work's modernity. In Act One particularly, Icke was I thought determinedly trying to make us draw parallels between Agamemnon and the Trojan War and recent Blair/Bush escapades in the Middle East. To me it felt forced, and, moreover, it doesn't altogether fit with what I recall about the original narrative – which is to say that the Greeks are not about to be attacked by the Trojans, but that the sacrifice of Iphigenia is to secure fair winds for their strike against Troy in retaliation for their abduction of Helen – all of this backstory has been deleted. This is far from the only deletion/addition, but the overall effect, as will be explained, is ambivalent. The biggest change is that Icke spends the whole first act (1hr 10 mins) to get us to the death of Iphigenia – a sequence of events that takes place before Aeschylus's plays even start. Yes, okay, I take the point that this can be seen as the origin of all the woe in the family that follows – but this only works if you clearly establish the link from that death to Klytemnestra's actions, and Icke creates an almost precisely opposite effect. All we see, until she eventually kills him (by which point and despite knowing the story well I was beginning to doubt whether she actually would) is someone who is accepting of the death of her daughter and appears to have forgiven her husband. Now you can argue Klytemnestra is being a very good actress concealing her true motivations from everybody, but if she also conceals those completely from the audience such that her killing of Agamemnon seems to come from nowhere then as drama, it's a failure. Another contributory factor here is the decision to largely write out Aegisthus – he only appears after Agamemnon has been murdered and is then played by the same actor – such that I rather suspect anyone not knowing the original would have been not a little confused by where he had come from and what his role in events was. Icke tries to get round this by implying that we are seeing all this through the eyes of Orestes who was unclear on those points. It is not a convincing decision.