Saturday 29 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Murmel, Murmel, or, Not Side-Splittingly Funny

The International Festival brochure proclaims this show to be “a side-splittingly funny 80 minutes”. On the basis of my experience I conclude that, presuming Fergus Linehan did see the show before booking it, he and I have wildly divergent senses of humour.

There is no question that the twelve strong ensemble of performers in this show are very talented people who can sing, move, dance and dive/fall off the stage onto a crash mat to a high standard. But a talented ensemble alone does not make a successful show and, once again this Festival, this is an ensemble let down by the show they are performing in.

Friday 28 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Die Zauberflöte, or, Played Incessantly (and Unsuccessfully) for Laughs

For the second fully staged opera of the 2015 Festival, Fergus Linehan turned to Mills era regular Barry Kosky. I did not rate the previous Kosky directed shows I saw highly but on paper this sounded a promising collaboration with 1927 Productions. The pity of this evening is that the central idea, of staging the work as a silent film, is an excellent way to deal with the dialogue. In themselves, those sections do work fairly well. Unfortunately much of the rest of the evening is problematic.

To understand why we do have to begin in this case with the production. This consists of constant film projections onto an enormous screen into which are fitted ledges so that cast members can appear both on the ground and in the air. Given the many environments the text calls for, this is not in itself a bad idea, the opening image of a madly running Tamino pursued by a dragon is quite fun, and the many entrances/exits of singers are adeptly handled. But two problems rapidly emerge: the animators are determined to play everything for laughs and they clearly believe that something visual must be going on virtually all the time. With regard to the first they have, I'm afraid, misunderstood the work. There are of course places which are meant to be funny, but there are equally places that are serious – when you have your audience laughing about suicide and rape – then things have gone badly wrong. Incessant busyness is an all too familiar vice of modern opera directors. Kosky claims in the programme note that “there are moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight. Suddenly there is only the music, the text and the character.” I counted a grand total of two such moments in Act Two, and they were very fleeting. Too often, for me, this constant busyness was in conflict with the music. Equally frustratingly, although there are places where Mozart's music would in theory benefit from something else going on, animation tended to simply repeat a fairly basic point till it became tiresome (for example right at the outset the repeated hearts of the ladies fluttering down on Tamino). The bomb whose fuse burns down but which doesn't explode for what feels like an eternity is simply ludicrous (and not in a good way). Little feels at stake in the trials. Overall, I had the distinct feeling that the animators neither trusted the music, nor thought anybody should be paying much attention to it.

EIF 2015 - Lanark, or, Can We Please Have a Moratorium on Breaking the Fourth Wall?

I haven't read Alasdair Gray's novel on which this adaptation is based. I'm in two minds as to whether I now should read it as some investigation following this show suggests that things I really disliked are faithful to the original work. From this the reader will gather that I am once again in dissent from the generally highly positive majority opinion on this show.

First, the positives. The acting ensemble is very strong. Sandy Grierson as Lanark and Jessica Hardwick as Reemer (?) deserve particular credit. They failed my ultimate test of really making me give a damn about their characters, but the fault for that lay with the work. The supporting players, all of them taking on a variety of parts, also deserve high praise – I especially enjoyed George Drennan's Lift (did Gray borrow from Douglas Adams's doors or was it the other way round?) and Gerry Mulgrew's Scarlatti playing Professor. Director Graham Eatough generally marshalls them effectively – the movement in Act Two is notable but has less impact than it might do because of the nature of the work.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

EIF 2015 - En avant, marche!, or, A Way of Finding Courage

I can explain what this show is about. I'm not sure that I can recapture why it packs such a punch.  The primary story tells of the first trombone of a brass band (the remarkable Wim Opbrouck) who owing to illness can no longer perform. Through broken snatches of speech, gargling, song, silence and some remarkable choreography the show meditates both on this loss and the perhaps more terrible final one which confronts him. Simultaneously, the show is also a larger meditation on the nature of community – a striking commentary on which is provided by the participation of a local brass band from wherever the show is being performed (in this case the superb Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band). The contrast between their history (as described in the programme) and the jobs of current members (elicted as part of the performance) is especially eloquent.

Early on the piece is often funny (the first trombone's wife's bitter complaints about her husband's insistence on sleeping with his trombone as well as her). But the tone steadily darkens. When the D & M forces bring matters to a conclusion with Holst's Jupiter, simply played straight out to the audience, it was powerfully moving.

Sunday 23 August 2015

EIF 2015 – HMS Pinafore, or, Showing London How It's Done (Again)

This concert performance of HMS Pinafore continues two trends of the 2015 Festival. First, like the semi-staged Budapest Figaro it contained more drama than many fully staged operas seen in London this season (the contrast with ENO's dull fully staged Pirates was especially telling). Second, it maintained the music/opera strand of this year's Festival as its strongest element. Altogether it was an enormously fun afternoon at the Usher Hall.

It was sensibly decided, as I gather was also done when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the work at the Proms ten years ago, to substitute a single narrator for the spoken dialogue. Tim Brooke-Taylor performed this role with excellent wit harnessing the best of Gilbert's dialogue to some choice anecdotes (the neat reference to W.H. Smith's other profession was an especially deft touch).

EIF 2015 – Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or, Unsuccessful Variations on a Wearily Familiar Theme

This show is the third of the Festival's drama programme concerned a) to attempt to challenge more traditional approaches to theatre making and b) to make out the construction of stories to be much more complicated than it needs to be. Earlier attempts The Encounter and 887 both possessed plenty of positive elements to compensate for the problems such approaches create (as I hope my earlier reviews made clear). This show is a dismal also ran.

Before I go any further I should make clear that this piece includes what the company would probably regard as spoilers. Its run has now ended at the Festival, but obviously it may be revived elsewhere, so if you think you are likely to see it and don't want to have what passes for its suprise element spoiled (though I don't myself think that element is very surprising) then I advise you not to continue reading.

EIF 2015 – Seven, or, Attempted Epic Falls Flat

A ballet choreographed to a complete performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with live orchestra in the pit sounded from the outset like the sort of unusual Festival show that could go two ways – either be an unique, remarkable experience, or an endurance test. Unfortunately, this show is the latter.

The first point which ought to be made quite clear is that choreographer Martin Schläpfer has not choreographed the whole of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. There are too many places in this performance when Mahler's music is chuntering on in the pit and nothing is happening on stage (the bizarre opening to the final movement is a key instance). This might be more tolerable if the choreography were more convincing, but Schläpfer simply hasn't got a sufficient vocabulary to sustain a 90 minute dance piece. After the opening movement you have pretty much seen what he has to offer and it is not improved by repetition. Only at the very end does something really new appear – a weird solo with bedside table coupled to a game of musical chairs. The choreography attempts the creation neither of sustained characters or narrative, nor does it respond convincingly to single movements in themselves (there are exceptions within movements) or to the work as a whole – it is essentially highly episodic. To couple such an approach to Mahler I frankly found rather baffling, because Mahler's Symphony is not meant to be played episodically – though this performance tried unsuccessfully to make it sound in places as if it was. To my eyes there was overall a strong divergence between music and choreography.

Saturday 22 August 2015

EIF 2015 – 887, or The Problem of Indiscipline

I'm fairly certain this was my first encounter with Robert Lepage's work. There was much to admire and it engaged my heart (always an important question for me) more than Simon McBurney's The Encounter. But ultimately this show also falls short of true greatness because of script indiscipline.

Like The Encounter, Lepage's narrative combines two strands. Firstly an exploration of his childhood in Quebec at a time of a rising, and increasingly violent, nationalist movement. Secondly, a request to recite a famous cultural output of that era, Michele Lalonde's poem Speak White at a 40th anniversary celebration of a key cultural evening for that rising nationalism. The poem itself is very powerful, and I was grateful to Lepage for introducing me to it, but much of the rest of that strand of the narrative struck me as self-indulgent, and distracting from the power of the story of Lepage's childhood.

Monday 17 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Le Nozze di Figaro, or, A Triumph of Inventiveness and Joy

In advance of this performance, I was sceptical. It sounded gimmicky to me, and I've seen too many neophyte directors let loose on opera, to usually disastrous results. I could not have been more wrong. This is a triumph, and despite being in theory semi-staged knocks many recent fully staged productions in London out of the ballpark. Add to that one of the finest musical performances of opera the Festival has seen in recent times and you have a special evening.

The performance was directed by conductor Ivan Fischer. He places the orchestra on stage grouped around a central podium, with a walkway across the stage separating some strings from the rest of the ensemble. Some attempts are made to include the orchestra in the action, but generally they simply play. Yet they somehow contrive to emanate this feeling that they are part of a narrative, even though (apart from the odd wig) they remain in black tie for the duration while the singers are changing costumes and indulging in a fair bit of stage business. Perhaps the only thing to say about it is that there is some strange performance alchemy at work here.

Thursday 13 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Last Hotel, or, In the Shadow of John Adams

In interviews following the Festival's programme launch in March, Fergus Linehan was candid about the challenges for the opera segment of the programme. At the same time he unveiled a canny line-up for his first festival – two repertory staples, and a new commission. In recent years, the Festival has had an adventurous record in putting on new opera. The success rate has not been especially high, but the attempts deserve praise. The same applies to this latest effort. Performance and production wise it is done to a high standard. Unfortunately, I can't say that I think the work itself is ultimately of the same merit (though as seems to be happening a fair bit this week I'm once again in dissent from the rest of the critical fraternity).

The best aspect of this show are the musical performances given by a trio of fine vocal soloists: Claudia Boyle (Woman), Robin Adams (Husband) and Katherine Manley (Wife). Of the soloists Boyle gives the most consistently fine performance, and sounds most comfortable with the high lying nature of the vocal writing. Earlier on I thought Manley sounded a little at the limit of her comfort zone but she settles as the show progresses. The writing for Adams is peculiar with its periodic breaking into falsetto. This doesn't seem to me to serve any particular dramatic or emotional purpose but Adams handles it well from a performance point of view. The soloists are supported by committed playing from the Crash Ensemble under Andre de Ridder. The Ensemble bring as much drama as they can to the performance, but the score doesn't give them enough support in the endeavour. The performing line-up is completed by the non-singing role of the Caretaker (Mikel Murfi). His movement is impressive and on occasions funny but in opera you do have to provide a good reason why a character doesn't sing (even Mozart's Die Entfuhrung, a great work, doesn't wholly get past this) and Dennehy and Walsh fail to do this.

Edinburgh Fringe 2015 – An Oak Tree at the Traverse, or, A Great Theatrical Mystery

This is the tenth anniversary production of this show which has, during its lifetime, travelled widely, received an off-Broadway award and, as a google search afterwards revealed, been extravagantly praised by many critics. After sitting through it myself I cannot think how any of this has been possible. This is one of the worst examples of “the emperor has no clothes” theatre it has been my misfortune recently to encounter.

The conceit of Tim Crouch's play is that the other performer changes with each performance and has no idea of the script until they arrive on stage and he starts handing them clipboards and telling them what to say next. For reasons also passing understanding, past reviews reveal that a great many leading men and women have subjected themselves to this experience over the decade. On this occasion the second performer was Sharon Duncan-Brewster who I don't think I have previously encountered.

Monday 10 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Encounter, or, A Flawed Experiment

Certain aspects of this show are highly impressive – the technical sophistication, and Simon McBurney's performance. However, they are weakened by others – the script, and the degree to which I personally felt successfully immersed. As a result I was not as convinced as others by the show and, in particular, I felt emotionally distant from much of it.

The technical conceit of the show is to attempt to turn it into a kind of personalised bedside story. Thus, apart from the very beginning, each individual member of the audience listens to the show's soundtrack through their own personal pair of headphones. The effect is like a more sophisticated version of listening to a radio play (more sophisticated because the radio can't achieve the same surround sound effect). But it also isn't quite like a radio play because you can see the effects being produced in front of you by McBurney. His performance both physically and vocally is impressive, but I wasn't finally convinced about the effectiveness of the combination. On the way home the point of comparison occurred to me. A few years back the Festival included Pan Pan Theatre's version of Beckett's All That Fall in which the text was transmitted over speakers while the audience sat in rocking chairs mostly in darkness, the only visual stimulus being some limited lighting effects. That for me was a more powerful, convincing immersive experience than this.

Sunday 9 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Opening Concerts, or, Includes A Blazing Performance from the Home Team

One of the great strengths of the International Festival since 2001 (and a musical combination particularly close to the heart of this blog) has been regular performances from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This year they opened the Usher Hall series, and the second half especially provided a showcase for Runnicles's impact on an already accomplished orchestra.

Before that, the first half gave us three Brahms choral works in partnership with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus: the Gesang der Parzen, the orchestral version of the Liebeslieder Walzer and the Schicksalslied. Collectively these made for a solid, but not wildly exciting appetiser. The Walzer are generally good fun, if rather slight pieces (the chorus had particular fun with no.11's take on spiteful people judging others). The ensemble were at their best in the Schicksalslied where they found a wonderful, quiet air of mystery.