Friday, 3 June 2022

Samson et Dalila at the Royal, or, I'm Sorry, Mr Jones, We're Fresh Out of Pillars

 I have a recollection of listening to a classic recording of this opera, I suspect one of a number of opera CDs inherited from a beloved uncle, and finding it enjoyable. There's certainly a lot of beautiful music in the piece, and I'm not sorry to have heard it live, but it is also not a mystery to me that it has largely fallen out of the repertoire.

The first problem lies with the way Saint-Saens structures the piece. The drama has an episodic feel, and tension both musically and dramatically has a tendency to drop. The balance between ensemble spectacle and exploration of the principal characters doesn't seem quite right. Most seriously there appears to be a glaring omission to stage a key plot point - that is so far as I could judge Dalila never does get the secret of Samson's power out of him at the climax of Act Two thus making it inexplicable that he can't escape from the mob.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Oklahoma at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Oklahoma is not a musical about which I previously had strong opinions. I saw it once more than a decade ago in an amateur production in Edinburgh (I think put on under the auspices of the Catholic Chaplaincy) and it didn't leave me with a desire to see the show again. I mention this to stress that I don't think I arrived at this performance wedded to the view that the show should be staged in a particular, say traditional way. I wouldn't even say, based on that one previous viewing, that I thought it was a show that especially needed a revival. Given those feelings and the fact I didn't need to see it in order to tick it off my list of unseen musicals, I really only booked because the production came trailing so much praise from its New York City run and because I thought it might be thought provoking. I left the theatre bored and baffled.

The problems start with the failure of the set (co-designed by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher) to give much in the way of a sense of place. We're in a bare space with two trestle tables making a T and a further single line of tables down the right and left sides separating audience from playing area. The railings of the upper level have been covered over with wood on which guns are hung. The thing never loses the sense of being a hall which could, frankly, be any number of places. The corn fields and farm drawing on the back wall is nice to look at but feels increasingly disconnected from the action. Productions with little sense of place seem to be in vogue these days (see most recently the Donmar's Henry V) and was one of a litany of things about this production that struck me as wearily familiar rather than daringly original. It is worth noting here that it may be that if seated downstairs the show works differently (we were in the gallery).

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Peter Grimes at the Royal, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

 This production has garnered pretty much universally high praise. In advance I was sceptical, having not been wholly convinced by Deborah Warner's Billy Budd for the House back in 2019. From my vantage point in the Amphitheatre I thought the production strengthened as the evening went on, but despite some fine individual performances it never gripped me with the emotional intensity of either the Snape Maltings concert/Grimes on the Beach experience or the Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival.

The main reason for this is a production which can't decide between abstract or realist approaches. The contrast shows up between the Prologue and Scene 1. The Prologue plays out on a bare stage. Grimes (Allan Clayton) appears to be almost dreaming it. Nearly the only light comes from the electric torches everybody is holding (from the Amphi much of Act 1 is too dark generally, though this is rectified in the later Acts). Scene 1 by contrast is a rather cluttered fishing market set-up, with a low wall which did remind me of Aldeburgh. We never get back to quite the spareness of the Prologue but the show has an uneasy feeling of being caught between those two approaches. For me it thus never fully achieved immersed me in its world. Elements of geographical confusion - particularly as to where Warner imagines the sea to be (in Act 1 it could be in at least three directions) - also do not help.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Henry V at the Donmar, or, Back to the Same Old, Same Old

Note: This is a review of the preview matinee on Saturday 19th February 2022 and written shortly afterwards. In view of the Covid cancellations and delayed press night I decided not to post until after the press night which has now taken place.

 Henry V feels to me like one of the more frequently staged Shakespeares (certainly among the history plays) and a new staging consequently runs up against the challenge of how to make the work fresh. It is a challenge which this production sadly fails to meet.

This was my first encounter with director Max Webster, though family members had recently reported positively on his Life of Pi. Webster and designer Fly Davis go for a very bare staging. There's a metallic like backdrop and a three level raked bare platform on which virtually the only furniture in three hours are occasional plastic chairs which look more suited to a classroom than a throne room. There is little concrete sense of place at any point - the single sustained exception is the Henry/Mountjoy scene towards the end of the first half. For atmosphere Webster is reliant, as far too many current directors seem to be, on projections supplied on this occasion by Andrzej Goulding. These are used in three ways - to explain elements of the plot (fair enough on the Salic Law speech, superfluous when we're on the road to Agincourt), to project the faces of the two monarchs, and to reinforce the text (waves to make clear that we're travelling by sea when the Chorus is describing this). As a whole the projections make little impression, and particularly in that last instance, suggested to me a lack of confidence in the audience to use their imagination. Overall the environment is dull to look at, and feels like a repeat of an approach I've seen often before.