Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Covid-19 Crisis, or, What Should the Arts Sector Do?

Over the last ten days or so the scale of the crisis facing the Arts has at last started to be brought before the public. The Globe, the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, a group of major organisations, and now the Southbank Centre have spelled out in stark terms the financial doom staring the sector in the face as it is forced to spend through its reserves just to survive. The Financial Times provided a good overview yesterday. Already venues have failed in LeicesterSouthampton and in Southport. If major organisations like these are facing collapse, consider how much worse the situation will be further down the food chain where organisations have little or nothing in reserve. Yes the Arts Council is doing its best with emergency grants to organisations outside the national portfolio (my twitter timeline in recent days has had plenty of groups issuing thanks) and now with emergency grants to freelancers (a group ill-served by government support mechanisms in general during this crisis and whose support at the moment is scheduled to be cut off completely at the end of May). But it is horribly clear that the crisis in its scale and likely duration dwarfs what support the government has so far offered.

Yet the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden and his Department have been slow to respond and reluctant to acknowledge just how deep the crisis is. As a regular audience member very worried about the fate of venues and art forms that are a huge part of my life I have had little sense that the government is particularly engaged by the crisis. Only on 20th May did Dowden, rather oddly sent out to lead that day's press conference, address the situation in a prominent public forum. Unfortunately all that he announced as far as the arts was concerned was a "renewal task force". Some criticised the membership. While not being wholly convinced on that point, the much more serious problem was the proposed focus of the task force which was "to develop creative solutions...to drive the return of sectors." The only mention of finance offered no sense of the scale of the crisis facing the sector: "the Taskforce will look to see how creative new approaches could help sectors thrive in future, building on existing channels of government support...".

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Susanna at the Royal, or, Opera in a Time of Pandemic

This was one of the strangest live performance experiences I can recall. Not for the performance itself, which was well sung and played in a production which had strong elements but didn't quite cohere. No, it was strange rather because of the external health crisis and the way that kept impinging, do what I would, on my mind as I watched and listened.

I had havered for the last few days as to whether to attend. I have found it difficult, both in my professional life and in relation to this performance to be sure institutions in this country are doing the right thing in carrying on when universities and arts venues on the continent are closing down for weeks. Let me be clear - I am quite specifically not making a judgement on whether the policy is right, I am not qualified so to do, but talking about how I have felt. Nevertheless, in the end I decided I would attend this performance. The run has been sold out since booking opened but there were enough empty seats to suggest others had reached a different conclusion, and I saw at least one audience member in their seat wearing a face mask.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Fidelio at the Royal, or, And Then the Curtain Rose on Act 2

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 1st March 2020.

At the interval of this performance it seemed as if we were heading for a solid, if not a stellar afternoon. Then the curtain rose on Act 2 and I realised we were in for a very long fifty minutes.

But let us start with the music. This is generally a strong if not, from where I was sitting, outstanding set of singing performances. Lise Davidsen (Fidelio) clearly has a voice of enormous power which punched through physically to the Amphitheatre in a way few singers do. She does her best to carry off dramatically the increasingly unconvincing direction. She also delivers some of the more intimate moments with great character - for example the Act 1 Quartet (which was probably the single most satisfying moment of the whole performance). But in some of the exchanges I'd have liked more flexibility and variation in volume. We were asked for our understanding of Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan) before the curtain rose so this was not an occasion on which to judge his capacities in the role - he sang creditably under the circumstances. There was finely sung supporting work from Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Robin Tritschler (Jaquino) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco). Simon Neal brought a rich bass to Pizarro but didn't always cut through the orchestra at full tilt.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Death of England at the National, or, Too Much on One Level

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 22nd February 2020.

It takes great talent to sustain a 100 minute single-hander play. Rafe Spall throws a huge amount of energy into this new work at the National, but from where I was sitting he didn't equal the recent, subtler work of Laura Linney and Maggie Smith at the Bridge, though he is hampered by aspects of both script and staging.

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams's play concerns Michael, a white man running a flower stall struggling with problematic relations with his family and generally furious with the wider state of the world. The authors' aim, I think, was an investigation of white racism, of the kind of people who are thought to have voted for Brexit. It is certainly significant to have such an investigation written for the stage by two black writers - but they don't achieve a penetration of those issues to compare with recent work on the American dimension of these themes by the black American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (most notably in his fine Appropriate seen recently at the Donmar). We may hear a great deal about what Michael thinks but the play does relatively little to explain how he has come to think this way. Its treatment of politics is superficial - there's a moment when Michael admits that he didn't even vote in the Brexit referendum which is just crying out for further exploration, but rapidly passes as the rant continues. As a result the play doesn't emotionally earn the closure it conjures. Indeed it did worse than that for me, with its (spoiler) use of a voice from beyond the grave, which effects a too easy reconciliation, and again does not allow for sufficient examination of how the situation allowing for that voice had arisen.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Luisa Miller at ENO, or Musically Blazing, Shame About the Production

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 15th February 2020.

I don't go to ENO very regularly these days for a simple reason - I don't trust the management's commissioning policy when it comes to directors, and the prices are now so high below the uncomfortable Balcony (I can usually sit in a decent seat more cheaply at Covent Garden) that one resents having paid them if a key aspect of the show is weak as it has too often been ever since the John Berry era. However, I do still go if they stage a work I haven't previously seen, and that was the primary reason I attended this performance.

It's easy to see why this Verdi work is not often done. The plot creaks - particularly when the hero decides that he'll poison the beloved he thinks has betrayed him, rather than, oh I don't know, sit down and try and discuss the matter first - especially when the production at any rate has made it abundantly (arguably too abundantly) clear that the person whom she is supposed to have betrayed him with is one of the villains. A follower on Twitter afterwards also made the shrewd comment that the creakiness of the plot is more exposed when presented in English as opposed to Italian. The overall effect would I suspect make it difficult even in an excellent production to achieve really strong emotional engagement, but this production despite being very strong musically causes it to fall short of that a fair bit.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

The Visit at the National, or, Another Failed Epic

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 15th February 2020.

I rather like a good epic, I regularly go to Wagner operas after all. But the big test of such an epic is whether the time flies by so that, in fact, you forget how long you're there for. On this occasion, proceedings dragged, badly.

I'm not familiar with Friedrich Durrenmatt's original, but presumably it had a Swiss or European setting. Tony Kushner's new adaptation transplants it to a decaying town in rust-belt America. Commentary on the social effects of the collapse of industry in the rust-belt has been everywhere since Trump's victory in 2016. Kushner's take on the setting sadly has nothing fresh to say. I'd recently read Amy Goldstein's Janesville: An American Story (2017) - which both goes deeper into the impact of economic change in the region and is more dramatically compelling than anything in this show.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Alice's Adventures Under Ground at the Royal, or, A Tired Mockery of Genre

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 8th February 2020.

The previous Gerald Barry opera I encountered, his version of The Importance of Being Ernest, was widely praised. I was much less convinced, and I really only booked for this because of my completionist tendency. It proved to be a tedious fifty five minutes.

But to start with the positives. The performances were of a very high standard. Jennifer France in the title role had a clear, piercing sound admirably suited to the high lying style of most of what vocal writing the work affords her. The supporting cast of Allison Cook, Carole Wilson, Nicky Spence, Robert Murray, Stephen Richardson and Alan Ewing all perform multiple roles in fine voices (again when allowed by the score to exercise them) and high energy commitment through many costume changes and running about the playing area. In the pit Thomas Ades draws crisp focused playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra (in contrast to the last time I heard their partnership - a disappointing Rake's Progress) but can't disguise the shortcomings of the score in that department either.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

The Welkin at the National, or, Twelve Women in a Room Arguing

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Monday 20th January 2020. The Press Night took place last night.

The premise of this play is an admirable one. Essentially it takes the idea of the classic Twelve Angry Men and turns it into twelve women. We do not see such an ensemble often enough on stage and I hope this flawed (from where I was sitting) attempt will be a spur to others to carry the idea forward. This show is blessed by an excellent, in some cases underused, ensemble, but the play itself doesn't quite work.

The plot concerns Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) who has been condemned to death for her part in a murder but has claimed to be pregnant. In consequence twelve women have been empanelled to decide whether she is so, with a single male officer of the court in the room with them who is not allowed to speak. The problems arise from how this idea is executed. It takes too long before we are locked in the room with this jury. Musing about it as I walked home I became increasingly convinced that the play would benefit from cutting all the scenes before the empanelment and letting any information we may need from them filter out through the jury room debate - this would also leave room for more mystery, more tension. Because the next issue is that we are told far too much about the prisoner before that debate even starts - there's not enough left to discover about her to generate needed dramatic tension once we're in the jury room. In consequence, in Act Two, writer Lucy Kirkwood resorts to a surfeit of revelations about our jurors which feels overblown - less, as so often would have been more.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse, or, Another Failed Concept Production

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 18th January 2020.

My misgivings about this show started as I was queuing up to get in and noticed that all the publicity stills featured performers holding microphones. They grew as I took my seat and observed a bare box-like playing area with three microphones and stands. Sadly, the show itself proved those misgivings all too justified.

There seems to be a vogue at the moment in directorial circles for bare stagings that have little concrete sense of place - the current production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida which I sat through earlier in the week is another one. Here Soutra Gilmour's set is wearisome to look at for nearly three hours - mostly just that bare box-like space, occasionally added to with a small set of stairs at the back, a mirror into which Cyrano stares for reasons never fully established, and four orange plastic chairs. Near the opening the production projects, and the text claims, that we are in France in 1640 - I never believed this.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The Duchess of Malfi, or, Why is it largely set in a changing room?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 16h January 2020.

This was my third encounter with director Rebecca Frecknall. I was less convinced than others by her Summer and Smoke, and my rating of her approach was not improved by either this show or her recent Three Sisters. However, I should preface what follows by also saying that I've never really got on with the revenge tragedy, so perhaps that was part of the problem.

Frecknall and set designer Chloe Lamford's Malfi is blandly modern and sparsely furnished such that, not unlike that Summer and Smoke, there is little concrete sense of place. The main piece of set is a narrow enclosed box-like object which looks like a leisure centre changing room. It sits mostly at the back of the stage and then in the second half is moved squeakily forward and then back to little purpose. Around the edges of the stage are various desks and chairs in which, in a directorial tick that is in vogue and should cease to be, the performers sit when not in scenes. Finally there are two glass like cabinets to the side which turn out to contain the show's props. The supplying of props in this way adds a layer of artificiality which increasingly undermines belief in the world on stage. Frecknall also tends to allow scenes to run into each other in such a way that people who oughtn't to be able to see things are going on appear to be able to do so.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Dear Evan Hansen, or, For Goodness Sake, Stop Lying!

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 4th January 2020.

In advance I was curious as to whether my judgement would agree with that of the Tony Awards voters who back in 2016 gave it the Best Musical accolade over Come From Away which I saw last year and really loved. I thought I might disagree (it has been known), I didn't expect to feel so antagonised by much of this show.

The story follows the Evan Hansen of the title, a young man with anxiety and it ultimately becomes clear wider psychological problems, through the challenges of high school. Following the suicide of a classmate, Connor, Hansen becomes swept into a web of gradually more complicated lies. Those lies are increasingly promulgated via technological means - fabricated e-mails, social media campaigns. To begin with the lies are structured around Hansen's fictitious relationship with the deceased, but it eventually becomes clear that the habit spreads much further.