Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Peter Gynt at the National, or, Another Flawed Epic

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th July 2019.

In recent years one strand of Edinburgh International Festival theatre programming has been securing higher profile co-production partnerships in the English-speaking theatre world. The idea is admirable but the results have been mixed. The last link up with a major London house (the Old Vic) two years ago produced the disappointing epic The Divide. This year Edinburgh audiences will soon be visited by a new version of another epic - Ibsen's Peter Gynt, this time in co-production with the National Theatre. In advance the show had one clearly positive element - the casting of James McArdle as the lead following his magnificent performance in Angels in America. But there were also question marks - the last Ibsen Jonathan Kent directed at the National - the epic Emperor and Galilean was flawed, most of adaptor David Hare's recent work has been, from where I've been sitting, undistinguished, and the designing of a production that would work equally well in the Olivier and the Edinburgh Festival Theatre did not strike me as straightforward. Sadly, this proved to be a disappointing afternoon.

The one saving grace of the show is James McArdle who makes a valiant, though ultimately vain effort to bring it to life. He has great presence and energy. He ages strikingly - the old, embittered Scotsman of the last act is a particularly fine piece of work. But he failed finally to make me care enough about Peter, or to conceal the considerable flaws of the rest of the show. Credit is also due to Oliver Ford Davies, whose delivery brings a welcome authority to the concluding scenes. Jonathan Coy finds occasional sparks as Bertram. The rest of the ensemble work hard but none of them make a particularly strong impression, though this may be to some extent a consequence of the adaptation or Ibsen's original.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Drive-by Shooting at Aldeburgh, or, A Refreshingly Comic New Opera

When was the last time you spent most of an opera laughing with pleasure? It certainly hasn't happened to me very often, which made Saturday night's ten minute mini-opera at the Aldeburgh Festival all the more a refreshing surprise.

Originally produced in Dublin the opera by John McIlduff (writer) and Brian Irvine (music) tells of a crime of passion among the Dublin elderly. Furious at her husband's affair with their neighbour Maureen (I think) at number thirteen - the precision adds to the comedy giving the listener a distinct sense of the environment in which these events are taking place - the aggrieved wife has resolved to "shoot the fecker in the pecker." She has purloined a gun kept by her husband originally used by his father in the GPO in 1916 and the prospect of prison holds no terrors - for health care will be better there!

Friday, 24 May 2019

Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, or, Striking...Excessive...Sometimes Incomprehensible...And Yet...

Note: This is a review of the first of two performances on Tuesday 21st May 2019.

Years ago I recall reading a newspaper feature about Stockhausen's Licht cycle which must at that point, I think, have been unfinished. It stayed in the back of my mind and I always thought it would be interesting to see what some of it was like in practice. But as I trekked off to the Festival Hall on Tuesday contemplating 4+ hours of a composer virtually unknown to me I did begin to wonder what I was letting myself in for. I won't say he never needed an editor, but on balance it was worth it.

The opera proper consists of three acts, preceded by a Greeting (played in the Clore Ballroom) and followed by a Farewell (played from the Balcony and the Terraces outside to magical effect by five trumpeters. I don't pretend to have grasped all the finer points of myth and plot, and the autobiographical dimension is not I suggest apparent unless you've read it up in advance. However, a central narrative does come through concerning the struggle between good and evil - personified by angels, particularly Michael, and the devil Luzifer. As part of that struggle Michael, for reasons which remain slightly opaque, has decided to experience life as a human. Act 1 follows his childhood, in Act 2 (the highpoint of the evening) he travels round the world, in Act 3 he returns to the stars. Finally, in Act 3 Scene 2 Michael tells us the whole story all over again (Wagner's Norns have nothing on him), providing some additional clues to the frankly rather confusing action of Act 1. To further muddle matters two of the principal characters - Michael and Eva (at times his mother and at times in some other guise his lover - again the relationship between the two never became wholly clear to me) are represented in multiple forms - dancer, singer, instrumentalist.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 29th April 2019.

We've been lucky in the UK recently to have two excellent productions of this masterpiece - Michael Grandage's for Glyndebourne and Orla Phelan's for Opera North. Altogether this was, I think, my fifth production of a work I cherish. At both Glyndebourne and Opera North I was powerfully moved. Indeed, there were sections in the latter stages of Phelan's production that were overwhelming. Here, in Billy's monologue and his farewell with Dansker tears did come to my eyes, but overall this evening fell short in various ways of those triumphs.

Deborah Warner's production has been imported from Madrid, and arrives trailing praise. From my customary Amphitheatre perch I had more mixed reactions. There's an awful lot of ropes in evidence (something seen before in other productions) and sails (less common) but Warner is much less successful than others at creating that claustrophobic seaboard world so critical to the drama. For most of the evening the stage is very open and there is simply too much space, and not just around the sides. Despite the large numbers of extra chorus and actors credited in the programme they often feel lost in the space in the big chorus numbers, where they should be jammed in. Similar problems apply to the more intimate scenes - when Vere sings of his "narrow cabin" it just isn't. The open stage also, I suspect, has musical consequences diffusing rather than concentrating the vocal sound of all concerned making it harder for dynamic variety to impact and for individual voices to come through the texture at key moments.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Sweet Charity at the Donmar, or, A Flawed Concept

Note: This is a review of the first preview on Saturday 6th April 2019. The press night was (I think) last night.

I previously saw this musical when the Menier revived it - I was somewhat horrified to discover this was back in 2009. I remember being rather moved by it, and blown away by certain numbers. When this production was announced I looked forward to revisiting the show. There are moments of inventiveness in the staging, and fleeting emotional punch, but overall it doesn't reach the same level as that earlier version.

The fundamental problem is the decision of director Josie Rourke and designer Robert Jones to set the show in a Warhol-esque fantasy environment - the programme explains it is inspired by his Silver Factory period of the 60s. I'm not particularly well acquainted with Warhol's life story, but most viewers should spot the various Warhol lookalikes, and the take offs of aspects of his art which are everywhere. This fits the Fandango Ballroom, where Charity and co ply their trade, to an extent. It creates a sterile, bleak environment appropriate to the plight of the entrapped women. But unfortunately the effect goes further than that creating for me an emotional coldness which the show rarely transcended. This is partly also a consequence of the very classic Fosse like costuming of the women - black bodysuits and very little else akin to the London revival of Chicago. I confess I've never found this kind of costuming very sexy - in this case while I can see the point of playing up the transactional nature of the Ballroom world again I think the cost to the humanity and individuality of the girls is problematic for the viewer's emotional engagement with the show. It alienates rather than making us care.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Top Girls at the National, or, A Baffling Reputation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th April 2019.

This was my fourth Caryl Churchill play. I didn't have high hopes in advance as none of the other three (Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (Royal Court), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Here We Go (both NT)) did much for me. But I was curious to see this particular play on account of its reputation as a classic. Perhaps it was all more daring back in 1982.

The story concerns Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) who some years back fled/escaped her Suffolk home and has built a successful career in London and abroad, ultimately achieving a senior management position in the Top Girls recruitment agency. The fantastical, apparently much famed, Act 1 sees her celebrating her promotion over dinner with an eclectic selection of historical and fictional women. Act 2 Scene 2 sees her and her associates in action at the agency. Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3 take us to Suffolk.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Shipwreck at the Almeida, or, I So Wanted to Be Post This Play

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Monday 25th March 2019.

There is, it appears, currently a competition going on between playwrights in Britain and the United States to write issue plays. For the former the subject is general state of the nation, sometimes with reference to Brexit, for the latter the subject is Trump. I cannot think of a single such play that I've seen that has been really good. This latest entry, Annie Washburn's Shipwreck, is long and dull.

My previous two encounters with Washburn's work were the uneven but interesting Mr Burns and her excellent adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Here Washburn tries to knit three strands together. First, a collection of eight liberal friends gathering for a reunion at a farmhouse one pair have recently bought somewhere in the United States (it is one of the failings of this play that it remains opaque where in the States we are). Secondly, the story of the immediately preceding white owners of the farmhouse (actual farmers) and their adopted Kenyan son. Thirdly, two fantasy scenes involving Donald Trump confronting George W. Bush (at the time of the Iraq War) and James Comey (at the famous dinner demanding loyalty).

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Alys, Always at the Bridge, or, What a Loathsome Collection of People

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 1st April 2019.

I must first admit that I wasn't in a particularly receptive mood when I arrived for this show. Only my completionist tendencies (and the cost of the ticket) had persuaded me to leave the comfort of the sofa after a heavy week at work. But a good show makes you forget you're tired (as the Royal Opera's magnificent Forza del Destino did the previous weekend). This tedious adaptation failed to achieve that for me.

Lucinda Cox/Harriet Lane's narrative concerns Frances (Joanne Froggatt) who finds herself alone at the scene of a car crash in which Alys dies. Alys's family then ask Frances to see them where the latter proceeds to lie about their loved one's final words. And so begins a narrative of scheming and deception which will see Frances, two long hours later, triumphant over everybody on stage in both work and relationships - she isn't actually surrounded by a pile of corpses, but the effect is very much the same.

Monday, 1 April 2019

La Forza del Destino at the Royal, or, Magnificent Musicians Transcend Muddled Story

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 24th March 2019.

My only previous encounter with this opera was at ENO in 1992 (thank you Google) with Josephine Barstow as Leonora, Richard van Allan as her father, and (it turns out) Edmund Barham as Alvaro. The evening hadn't stuck in my mind in such a way as to make me want to rush to see the opera again, and despite the outstanding musical performances which blessed this afternoon, that overall opinion was not altered.

As a work the piece suffers from various problems. The narrative is highly episodic and doesn't succeed in building dramatic tension through the piece in contrast to truly great epic Verdi like Don Carlo. Several of the choruses are both weak musically and hold up the drama, especially at the end of Act 3 (I puzzled over the fact that cutting this would doubtless be met with howls of protest but yet the House continues to cut the dramatically integral and musically far finer opening chorus of Don Carlo). It's too dependent on chance - Alvaro and Carlos just happen to meet in the army, it just happens that both Alvaro and Leonora seek refuge in the same monastery. Far too many false names are deployed. But fundamentally, the plight of the central trio just never quite got me emotionally. For me the most convincing dilemma is Guardiano's wrestling with his conscience and his faith as to whether to grant Leonora's request to live as a hermit - a scene superbly sung and acted here by the magnificent Feruccio Ferlanetto - a performer who understands the virtue of stillness.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Rossini's Elizabeth I at the Hackney Empire, or, Simple is Best

Note: This is a review of the first night on Saturday 2nd March 2019.

Regular readers will know that I'm a Rossini fan. There have been a few stagings of the rarer end of Rossini's prolific output at the Royal Opera in recent years, often irritatingly, sometimes bafflingly over-complicated though at least usually blessed with strong singing. One of the great pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable evening therefore is James Conway's unfussy, straightforward production.

Musically there is likewise much that is excellent. On the podium John Andrews, with whom this was my first encounter, showed a perfect understanding of the Rossini style. The pacing, the build up of crescendos, that wonderful light sweep in the strings, the needed character (from playful to sad) in the winds and brass - Andrews draws all of that from his fine orchestra. As always with the best kind of Rossini performance when the mood is upbeat I simply reveled in the fun, but Andrews also knows where to linger to catch at the heart.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Tartuffe at the National, or, Insufficiently Fleet of Foot

Note: A review of the performance on Thursday 28th February 2019.

In the opening stages of this show I rather hoped for a fully comedic evening - in the present state of the world our theatres could, quite frankly, do with a bit more sheer escapism. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that this comedy is married to yet another Norris era attempt to lecture us about that world beyond the theatre walls. That attempt suffers from a heavy handedness which infects the more comedic elements depriving them of the lightness, the ease of the best comedy. The result is another evening at the National which drags.

The show is blessed with an enjoyably opulent set (Robert Jones), even if the double doors at the back don't slam with quite the force or ease that the farcical element of the script really needs. Director Blanche McIntyre also successfully shrinks the large Lyttelton stage, although she has been less careful regarding sightlines for those on the front left hand aisle paying full price. With the help of physical comedy director Toby Park she engineers some brilliant surprise entrances. But pacing is often slow, the farcical elements never get quite wild or quick enough, there's an insufficient sense of affairs spinning out of control, and the tilting floor at the end is gratuitous rather than menacing.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera, or, Adrift in Spaces

Note: A belated review of the performance on Saturday 9th February 2019.

After last year's disappointing From the House of the Dead I'd hoped the Royal Opera's Janacek cycle was going to pick up with this second installment. Sadly, while it's mostly strong musically, Richard Jones's production left me emotionally cold and, in Act 3, increasingly irritated.

In the title role Amanda Majeski has been highly praised (some near me gave her a standing ovation). She certainly sings much of the role very finely - particularly her near monologue in Act 3. But in other places I would have liked a little more breadth to a sound that sometimes to my ear came across as a little shrill. As an actress she simply didn't make the same impression on me she seems to have made on others, though perhaps that was down to Jones's direction. The rest of the large number of solo roles were solidly taken but nobody consistently held me vocally. In the pit Edward Gardner making his house debut (and the latest candidate being advanced as Pappano's potential successor) shaped this score far better than Wigglesworth did last year's House of the Dead, and drew spirited playing from the Orchestra. But overall the musical qualities were not enough to distract from my irritation with the direction.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another at the National, or, We Are Listening to You. For Hours.

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 4th February 2019.

It was instructive to see this show the evening after Ian McKellen's mesmerising solo tour de force at the Bridge. This show also possesses fine performers in Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, with a strong supporting turn from Jessica Gunning. Blanchett in particular delivers a mountain of text as compellingly as McKellen. Unfortunately there's a considerable gap between the poetry of such great writers as Shakespeare and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the prose of Martin Crimp.

I'd previously seen a revival of a Crimp play at the Almeida and his two operatic collaborations with the composer George Benjamin, none of which did much for me. This text is considerably worse. We are in a garage in which a couple are playing sex games, with an audience of four. Who exactly the couple are, why they've taken to this peculiar kind of role playing, why on the theme of Pamela (this show is allegedly variations on Richardson's novel - not having read it I can't comment on to what extent that claim stacks up), and why on earth three of the quartet of watcher-participants are involved are all questions which struck me as pertinent but which Crimp never answers. He does belatedly indicate that the fourth watcher is being paid - which given what we are expected to accept that gentleman is subjected to suggests that the unemployment situation is far worse than I'd realised. In place of meaningful exploration of character or motive, or indeed plot that goes anywhere, all we get is endless talk. It was not clear to me what the message was or even if there was one. Occasionally a striking image leaps out from the verbiage, but mostly, despite the best efforts of the performers I just could not get interested in what was going on.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

An Evening with Ian McKellen at the Bridge, or, In the Presence of Greatness

Note: A belated review of the performance at the Bridge Theatre on Sunday 3rd February.

If you're lucky enough to have secured a ticket for this theatrical event, the first thing to do when you arrive is buy a programme. Not only will this go, along with all the profits, towards a worthy cause chosen by the venue (for me it was for Flute Theatre to undertake educational work with Southwark school children) but it contains a map. More vividly than the list of venues on the tour's website it shows the scale of what McKellen is doing. In this era of justifiable concern about accessibility, McKellen is making a remarkable practical commitment by playing venues like The Hafren in Newtown or the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis - places, I suspect, that rarely see a theatre performer of such stature (it struck me as a rather sad, but unsurprising comment, on my current home town of Lincoln that its fine Theatre Royal has missed out).

The show itself is in two parts. In the first, longer, section, McKellen combines recitation (from Tolkien to D H Lawrence), anecdote and autobiography. In the second, we go on a whirlwind tour through the best bits (in McKellen's view) of Shakespeare. The first with its windows into vanished worlds - a time when Bolton had three theatres, a time when male couples could not openly show their affection for each other for fear of arrest - I found the more moving. McKellen's delivery of the Shakespeare is consistently magnificent - someone should be planning a production of As You Like It so he can cross Jaques off his list, and Shallow's recitation of the dead was haunting - but the framing device, which I thought required selective deafness on McKellen's part wears a little thin.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Die Walkure at the Festival Hall, or, Now the Audience Must SEE her Horse

This was an afternoon that started strongly, blessed by some electrifying singing from Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Act 1. Sadly thereafter things deteriorated so that by Act 3 I was just looking forward to the end.

I couldn't make the recent Ring Cycles at Covent Garden, and the last time I heard any of the cycle live was back in 2013 at the Proms so a return felt overdue. Family had also reported favourably on Vladimir Jurowski's conducting and the LPO's playing after last year's Rheingold (if not on Matthias Goerne's Wotan). Regrettably this cycle's problems with that role continued.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Sweat at the Donmar, or, Of Perennial Problems of New and Issue Plays

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 19th January 2019.

This latest in a sequence of recent American plays to make it to London arrives with a considerable reputation having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017 (I was very struck to realise that one of the works it beat to that award was Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America - on the basis of my encounter with the first part of the latter at the Barbican the decision was definitely the wrong way round). Since it opened at the Donmar before Christmas it has received unanimous critical praise, and an examination of Twitter when I was writing this produced not a single audience member who was less than impressed. But I'm afraid I could not agree with all these people. From where I was sitting this was a flawed play which did not tell me anything really new about the issues it discussed.

There are strong aspects to the afternoon. The design of the central bar set, by Frankie Bradshaw and lit by Oliver Fenwick is beautifully done, and manages one of those occasions when the Donmar convincingly becomes another world. The detail of the objects chosen for the wall hangings particularly stood out. There's nice use of archive TV footage (presumably selected by Video Designer Gino Ricardo Green) although the sense of date was to my mind more concrete in that footage than from the actual text.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Queen of Spades at the Royal, or Just Wait Till Tchaikovsky Attempts Suicide With His Own Quill Pen

I'm not quite sure why I booked to see this. I previously ticked off The Queen of Spades the last time the Royal Opera revived its previous production, and it hadn't stuck in my head as a work I desperately wanted to revisit. I'd seen two Herheim productions and not been wowed by either of them - particularly not his version of La Cenerentola which played at the EIF last summer. As this long afternoon dragged on I'm afraid I was increasingly eager for the finish.

The best of the performance came in Act 2 Scene 2 thanks to Felicity Palmer's electrifying Countess. In her lieder like aria of reminiscence, Palmer's voice sank almost to a whisper. There was a palpable deepening of the stillness in the auditorium (a few coughs notwithstanding) - it was one of the rare moments when I felt the show was really holding the audience. There was also fine work from Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) in his big aria (particularly commendable given the amount of silly things Herheim gives him to do), and from the Chorus in the religious chorale like passage towards the conclusion.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

I'm Not Running at the National, or, Neither of Them, Thank You

The issue play is a popular form at the National these days, and this is another in a lengthening line of indifferent ones. The state of the Labour Party and of the NHS are both topics which also seem to be in vogue. On the former we've had the flawed Labour of Love and the brilliant Limehouse, on the latter the recent Hallelujah! This play combines the two themes in an episodic treatment ranging from 1996 to 2018.

It is the decision to posit an actual Labour party leadership contest in 2018 which is at the heart of the work's problems. Firstly, historically, there wasn't one - and at the time there was frankly little sign there was going to be one. Secondly, the terms in which Hare imagines this fantasy leadership struggle emerging are so divorced from the actual history as to render the story deeply unconvincing. Hare posits a Blairite type centrist (so far so fair enough), against an independent woman who has only just joined the Labour party and who has made her political career on the single issue of being elected in Corby by opposing the closure of the NHS hospital there. Hare seems to be unaware that the defining issue of our politics in 2018 and indeed for several years prior to that was Brexit. Moreover recent general elections have decimated the minor parties and independents - our actual politics, contrary to one of the theses of the play, is becoming more tribal rather than less. He also ignores the actual character of the two most recent struggles for the Labour leadership - some glancing comments on the soul of the Labour party notwithstanding, there is an absence of engagement with the Corbyn-moderate battle which defines Labour at present. Had Hare set this debate during the Blair era, or towards its end, and rendered it a purer history piece it might have worked better - though even then the whole argument feels rather redundant in the context of our current political crisis. In sum, Hare seems to want to be making a comment on our contemporary political moment, but nothing really lands because the picture of that moment he constructs is increasingly divorced from reality.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Tell-Tale Heart at the National, or, In Wearily Familiar Territory

Note: A belated review of the performance on Friday 4th January 2019.

This riff on Edgar Allan Poe's short story commits a series of my more highly ranked theatrical crimes. But perhaps the most notable, and unwise, is to include quite a number of statements in the text which were presumably intended to be jokingly self-mocking and in fact invited firm agreement from this audience member - this began early in the first half with a masturbation joke ("Who wants to watch that?") - we have already by that point had the masturbation and on-stage toilet visit presumably so Neilson can say look what I can do on stage at the National - and concluded when this tedious show was crawling towards an ending with "Well the play was shite anyway." Indeed it pretty much is.

My only previous encounter with author and director Anthony Neilson was his work Realism at the Edinburgh International Festival back in 2006 which was one of the many mediocre new plays I've sat through there over the years. This is worse. The central problem is that Neilson can't seem to decide whether he wants to make a comedy or a chilling murder mystery. Mostly the evening sticks to the former (although many of the jokes are tired and while some in the audience laughed I rarely did). However, as the second half drags on the show makes an attempt to shift to the latter. The whole set up has been so mocked to that point I couldn't take the shift in tone seriously. A further problem with the shift is that, to work, it would require the viewer to be engaged by the plight of Celeste/Camille (Tamara Lawrence). Unfortunately, she is written as such an arrogant, tiresome individual who goes far too unchallenged by anybody else on stage that I felt the sooner she was arrested and removed to prison the better. The writing inflicted on Lawrence is generally problematic - it's difficult to see why Nora (Imogen Doel) is so attracted to her and it's simply ludicrous that David Carlyle's Detective seems to find it so difficult to spot that she's committed a murder when the signs are, in my view, unmistakable. The heights are reached when a voice over claims that Lawrence has planned the whole crime meticulously - a new definition of the term I was not previously aware of.