Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Edinburgh Reviews 2 (including The Bacchae)

Woyzeck. Aurora Nova.

A brilliant physical realisation of Georg Buchner’s 1836 play, where the eponymous (anti)hero, a dogsbody of a soldier, kills his lover after he is turned mad by a combination of his grinding life, strange medical experiments and his abuse at the hands of his drum major (who sleeps with Marie, Woyzeck’s lover). I’ve seen several productions of this play (and the superb Berg opera), but this 70 minute version by South Korea’s Sadari Movement Laboratory at the respected Aurora Nova venue, is by far the most striking. A piece of almost wordless physical theatre, 11 performers bring the dark world of the soldier to vividly life. The company are all dressed in simple clothes and the stage is bare except for chairs, these chairs are used in a variety of ways to paint dramatic stage pictures. There is Woyzeck at the end of a row of these chairs, dramatically lit (the lighting throughout is very atmospheric and quite superb), looking like the loneliest man in the world, or a group of soldiers frantically spinning a chair each, extraordinarily representing their physical prowess and macho pride. This production really defies my powers of description, it is ravishingly beautiful, constantly striking, but absolutely simple and without flummery. If this company or thrillingly captivating and entertaining production every comes your way, I would fight for a ticket.

The Bacchae. King’s Theatre.

The Edinburgh International Festival’s big theatre event of 2007 was David Greig’s version of Euripides The Bacchae at the King’s Theatre, in a co production with the National Theatre of Scotland and directed by John Tiffany (who had the Fringe hit of 2006, the superb Balckwatch, which will finally be seen in London next year). If that is a sentence that should hit theatrical pay dirt, add Alan Cumming as Dionysus making his return to the Scottish stage, and you really have a licence to print good reviews. And this is a very good production, and Mr Cumming is actually excellent, but it is not quite a superb production for my money. This 145 minute version (no interval), is highly entertaining and beautiful to look at; we get an a alarming burst of flames (which was very hot indeed, even in row K), blinding lights, a river of wine, an aerial entrance and a striking chorus of red clad Gospel singers as the Bacchae themselves. So Tiffany certainly knows how to make ‘total theatre’, but the camp touches were sometimes a tad too flip for my taste (and I’m all for camp in the right places). The more sombre emotional scenes towards the end of the play were quite moving, with Paola Dionisotti excelling as the cursed Agave. Grieg, who also had two other plays being performed in the Edinburgh Fringe at the time, is a deft adaptor, he gives us beautiful language, speech that is never stiff or too formal, but most importantly he has the skill to make this adaptation feel natural (i.e you can watch the play without consciously thinking about when the language was written). The production plays Glasgow, before a residency at the Lyric Hammersmith, it is well worth seeing.

Killer Joe. Pleasance Courtyard.

Tracy Letts’s play Killer Joe started out (in Europe at least) on the Edinburgh Fringe in the mid 1990’s before a West End run, and this production shows it as a powerful piece still, though very much a period piece too. It is certainly not for everyone, when I attended several people left, and this violent comedy/drama ends with an almost over the top orgy of killing. The depiction of sex is also unflinching (though not particularly explicit), with the title character sexually awakening a young woman, given to him as a ‘retainer’ on his assignment to kill the young woman’s mother (having been hired by the woman’s father and brother to knock off the mother for the supposed insurance payment). This is a world of Texas trailer park white trash, who live in scuzzy splendour in a grotty caravan, eat KFC and drink only beer. Directed by Maggie Inchley with a superb cast of comedians come actors, particularly excellent are Phil Nichol as the amoral father and Tony Law as the deadly and seductive killer Joe, but al the cast hit the mark. The play is not an enduring classic, but it is very funny, brilliantly bloody (almost Greek in its tragedy) and highly entertaining.

Etiquette. Aurora Nova.

An excellent, inventive and memorable experience for two people by London based theatre company Rotozaza, Etiquette has you and a partner sitting at a table in a café (on the occasion the Aurora Nova café, but it would work in any such environment), where you each act out a scenario as instructed by pre recorded tape (you both have headphones on, with props arranged precisely on the table in front of you). The play is a very intimate experience, you have to look your partner in the eye for quite a long time, which is actually quite difficult for many people (think about it, when do you ever hold a direct gaze for more then a few seconds?). The play lets us lose our self-consciousness, we are in a café, but oblivious to the other people once we are inside out world of performance, we don’t care who is looking at us or mind what we say. Eventually you only see and hear your partner and the sounds on the tape. Instead of thinking how to fill the silence with our own words we are instructed what to say, it heightens your sense of anticipation, of what you will say and how your partner will respond. You close your eyes, and when you open them your partner has changed positions, you move your partners hand, you look at them or avoid looking at them, you speak, they respond. It is a thoughtful piece, which challenges our everyday strategy for automatically filling time with words and glances; it makes us think about communication and relationships. It also tells a strange almost love story, which in the grand scheme of things is very much secondary to the experience as a whole. I loved the moment when I was an actor onstage, closing my eyes and imagining I was in the wings, with all the noises of the theatre ringing in my ears. I think my friend Angela was as equally impress as I was with this wonderful piece of personal theatre.

Macbeth: Who is that Bloodied Man? Old College Quad.

I saw some of Macbeth: Who is that Bloodied Man, but not all of it. Unfortunately I had a ticket for the wettest and coldest night of Edinburgh’s ‘summer’. The rain lashed the handsome Old College Quad as the hundreds of spectator flooded in like the river flowing on the pavement outside. Unfortunately this meant that everyone had their umbrellas up, which in turn meant, as the quad is a flat piece of ground, that those behind the first couple of rows of standing spectators couldn’t see very much at all (or at least very much of what was going on at ground level). Due to my totally soaked state, and the fact that for the first (and I hope last) time I was wearing a plastic carrier bag (i.e. poncho) with the Scottish Saltire printed onto it, and I looked like a large blue tent crossed with a drowning SNP supporter, I decided after 20 agonising minutes (I had rushed halfway across the city with my friend Angela from Aurora Nova to the Quad in the pouring rain, and my feet hurt anyway from a mad day of rushing about) to quit and retire to my warmish bed. Polish theatre company Biuro Podrozy’s production is a visual treat, it involves people on stilts in flowing black gowns, motorcycles, football rattles and a disturbing musical soundtrack. Unfortunately the chap on stilts couldn’t light the beacons because of the heavy rain, but he did give it a good go. Macbeth seemed to be a crazed Nazi, and there were occasional burst of unintelligible speech loudly relayed over the huge speakers (like God was talking to you I would imagine). I thought the piece was visually interesting, but not all that revelatory, if it had been I probably would have braved more of the rain.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Review: The Emperor Jones

Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones was first staged in New York in 1920, arrives at the Olivier Theatre as part of the Travelex £10 season. Thea Sharrock’s production was initially staged at Notting Hill’s tiny Gate Theatre in 2005 (when she was artistic director there), and Patterson Joseph reprises his role as the eponymous ruler of a tiny Caribbean Island. This play has immense power and uses a number of styles from expressionistic dream sequences to realism, but I found the staging in the huge Olivier lacked some of the directness and strength that it had at the Gate. In the Gate we sat around a small rectangular pit, where all the claustrophobic action took place, where we felt almost part of the action and were able to study the expression of the desperate Jones up close. In the Olivier, naturally, everything is massive and more imposing, but not necessarily better (the feeling of claustrophobia is also, naturally, gone). Joseph’s powerful acting, his cocky swagger turning into fear and despair via terrified mania and his brilliantly realised physical performance, are riveting to watch. Sharrock’s direction is excellent, she uses movement and music to great effect in the larger auditorium and her acting ensemble are very good at conjuring up collective memories that haunt Jones (like a 19th century slave auction). However I felt that the huge number of ‘supernumeraries’ (as the cast sheet puts it) used in the slave auction scene was totally out of proportion to the needs of the piece (as the term supernumeraries actually suggests), and simply there to fill up the stage. The plot is groundbreaking for a play written sometime before 1920, a black prisoner (an unfortunate double murderer) has escaped form the USA and made for the West Indies, there he tricks the inhabitants of one small island into believing that he has special powers and eventually becomes their ‘Emperor’ (they are ‘bush niggers’ whom he looks down upon, terrorises and steals from). We first meet Jones on the day of reckoning; his subjects have fled to the hills, marshalling witchcraft and courage in order to kill him. Jones flees and on his journey we see shadows of his past played out as dark haunting memories. The play has some empathy with the plight of black people, the legacy of slavery and the harshness of justice for them, it shows Jones as an intelligent man able to trick the simple natives. But here lies to trouble too, the stereotypical negro language that Jones uses, his derision of the natives (equally to that of any white imperialist), and the credulity of the tribe he tricks, as well as the mental collapse of Jones, can be used (or some will say) to negatively stereotype black people. All I can say is, that this play engenders sympathy for Jones, it highlights the injustices of racisms (though in a subtle way), it highlights the barbarity of slavery (of any kind), and it ultimately shows humanity. This 70 minute piece is highly recommended, it is simply beautiful storytelling.

Edinburgh Reviews 1

Notes on Edinburgh

Whilst in Edinburgh I took notes after each performance, or sometimes after several, I had a very busy schedule so often notes were kept to a bare minimum. Also remember that many shows in Edinburgh do not produce a programme, and if they do it will invariably just be a list of names on a scrap of paper (except for the International Festival and many play at the Traverse where full programmes are sold). As I’ve seen well over 40 shows I’m planning to write a brief review of most of them (some much longer than others), interspersed with notes and observations about the festivals and the city. I won’t be researching every company, playwright or actor in detail (as I might do for a review in less crowded times), so you may have to bear with me if the information is not as full as usual.

Please do not read on if spelling mistakes offend you. These reviews will be written by me in haste, and I won’t have time to proof read them (and I have clumsy typing fingers to boot). If you can’t understand what I’m saying, or wish to point out a particular mistake, then do email me!

Dai (Enough), Pleasance Courtyard.

American actor Iris Bahr has written and performs Dai (meaning enough in Hebrew), a very powerful piece of theatre indeed. The last moments of several disparate visitors to a Tel Aviv café are told by Bahr, culminating in the suicide bombing of the café by a Palestinian terrorist. Bahr is able to inhabit her characters perfectly, she uses a slightly exaggerated physical style to represent a variety of people in very different ways. She is the elderly Kibbutz veteran, an opportunist Russian prostitute, a guilt free young German, an American volunteer for the Israeli Army, and several more besides. Each one tell us about their lives, why they are in this café, their normal lives are intersecting, circumstance bringing this group together for their terrible fate. Just as we are getting familiar with one subject, a sickening explosion shatters the air and the light is cut, we hear the screams of the dying and injured for a second or two, before Bahr pops up and goes into the next character, only for this event to be repeated each time. The explosions made me flinch every time, even though it was expected, the horror of the situation was upsetting (though it is not sensationalist or emotionalistic). Crucially the play delivers several versions of life in Israel, with the notion of identity and belonging being subtly explored by each story. At the end of the play I did have the feeling that the piece veered towards an overly sympathetic view of the Israeli position (but then plays are not objective things usually), with the Israeli’s humanised, and the Palestinian perspective not dealt with or represented. An elderly Palestinian professor is shown at the end of the play waiting for her son, and it is he who (it is strongly implied) is the suicide bomber. So now Palestinian’s are not just killers, but would blow up their own mothers? But of course it is Palestinians who act as suicide bombers, and the mindset of the minority of Palestinians who carry out these abhorrent acts can be rightly be called into question. The play made me think about our relationship with history; one character has it as the foundation stone of her life (a religious zealot), others are living in the present and forgetting the past (like the non Jewish German sick of hearing about the Holocaust), others only have their eye on future betterment (the Russian prostitute, who posed a Jew to start a more lucrative life in Israel), an American volunteer for the army wants to discover a family in the Jewish state, wants a place to belong. Behr’s acting is phenomenal, a real tour de force, captivating her audience, making us smile and think before shocking us again and again. A sobering, sad and shocking start to the festival for me.

Hugh Hughes: The Story of Rabbit. Pleasance Courtyard.

Shon Dale-Jones’s alter ego Hugh Hughes rubs me up the wrong way I’m afraid. The wide eyed 37 year old ‘emerging artist from Wales’, with a beaming face and pally attitude becomes annoying after several minutes of mild amusement. His story telling (this is a play where Hughes tells us a story, not an acted out piece, although confusingly Hughes is a character and not the reality of the performer), is pure whimsy, and annoyingly plodding. He tells us two tales (both real, from Dale-Jones’s life apparently), alternating between finding a rabbit he is looking after for a neighbour dead in his shed, to the death of his father in 2001. I don’t really want to traduce a heartfelt personal story, but it really didn’t move me very much at all (more than any peaceful death in old age would, which sounds slightly callous). I also thought that showing pictures of the exact spot where his father died was, well, not something I would do, and of very little help to the story. By the end of this self indulgent show, I was very pleased to see the back of the eager Hughes.

An Evening with Adrienne. The Medical School.

Adrian Howells greets us as Adrienne, a glamorous drag queen, in his sitting room hidden inside the Victorian Medical School building (which is fascinating in itself, including a huge skeleton of an elephant in their museum). This is undoubtedly the most comfortably (physically anyway) show on the fringe, with real sofas set in the chintzy 1970’s decorated room. It is an intimate show (with only 8 other people present when I attended, and perhaps space for one more), and felt like a strange group therapy session at times. We get a free ice lolly and sit down to be regaled by stories chosen by us from a picture menu. These stories were funny and sweet tales of Adrian’s penchant for dressing up as a girl when he was a young boy, early forays into transvestisism. The second half of the show (after a sandcastle building competition, where my team came third), was much more serious, but equally engaging and interesting. Adrienne showed us short video clips of him, his family and friends discussing issues ranging from acceptance to being bullied at school, he sang to us, and he told us more stories of his younger self. I criticised Hugh Hughes for showing a picture of the place where his father died, I called him self indulgent. But Adrienne is never that, he is emotionally honest and raw, which in these intimate circumstances was very moving. Adrian’s childhood family relationships had been hard, but I was cheered by the fact that his small c conservative parents were now accepting of him, and that his brother in particular had helped him during times of crisis. Adrienne led a group discussion on bullying (though it was strictly voluntary to speak, with no pressure), which was surprisingly open and emotional. At the end of our wonderful 100 minutes together Adrienne strips of the glam drag queen persona, removes the layers of make up, and shows himself as plain old Adrian. It was a real transformation; he had become a more vulnerable figure without the costumes. He left us alone in the room to watch a short slide show of his life, before the audience drifted out separate ways. A great show, but you may need therapy afterwards.

England. Fruitmarket Gallery.

Along with Adrienne’s show Tim Crouch’s excellent new play England, is presented under the banner of the august Traverse Theatre. The work is subtitled ‘a play for galleries’, and on this its world premier, the Fruitmarket Gallery (next to Waverly Station, from which you can hear nondescript announcements over the tannoy) is the venue. Currently the gallery has an exhibition of contemporary artist Alex Hartley’s works, ranging from small instillations to photographs, filling the clean white space of the gallery, his works look at structures and physical space (and is well worth a look). Crouch’s play makes specific references to the gallery and artist, but these could be changed to suit any galley and artist. Crouch’s last play ‘An Oak Tree’, had a fresh actor playing opposite the author every night, the actor would be totally new to the play and would follow Crouch’s instructions. This was an interesting and rewarding piece of theatre, but England is even better in my view. Crouch again performs his own work, this time with the help of Hannah Ringham (of Shunt), a beguiling and intriguing story about a woman living in Southwark. Both of the actors speak as the woman, (and later represent another character) sometimes repeating or echoing what the other has said or continuing a sentence. The delivery is almost neutral, it’s not animated as you might expect (but it does rise and fall to emotion occasionally). The first 30 minutes of the 60 minute piece are performed in the upstairs part of the gallery, with most people standing around, following the actors as they move around the light and airy room. The actors seem very open open, they are not alienated from us with high drama or on a distant stage, but standing with us in an equally lit space, with no spotlights or curtains. The world of the woman was set before us; where she lived, about her Dutch/American art dealer boyfriend, how she loved London, describing what a comfortable and privileged life she leads. The words were spare, sometimes emphasised, but simple and effective, we didn’t know exactly where the play would take us, but it become more and more interesting and intriguing as the time went on. The meaning and value of art was discussed, the benefits that wealth can buy obvious (mostly from her boyfriend’s money). She was the kind of woman you might meet at any contemporary art gallery, happily experiencing what she can in moneyed comfort; she is a nice person, a person who values culture, a person you might very well like.

The second part of the play moved to the downstairs gallery, where we all sat down facing the two performers. It had become clear in the last minutes upstairs that the woman was gravely ill, with a heart defect, and her death was expected. That is perhaps why she had been examining her life, thinking about what she loves and enjoyed in a time of crisis. The second part plunged us into confusion, the woman was alive and well, talking to a foreign woman, whose husband’s heart the woman now had beating insider her. It was painful to watch this unidentified woman (actually represented by an interpreter, so never directly represented in the room), speak about the loss of her husband and the longing to be close to him. The woman says that her husband was effectively killed to give the English woman his heart, a transaction arranged by the rich boyfriend and his father. This shocks and dismays the other woman, but she soon accepts the situation and denies the other woman’s husband had died for her, he would have died anyway she tells her, naturally her own life is paramount. This is quite hard to listen too, and very moving indeed. It is a fact that the lives of those in the west, or those with money are worth vastly more than the poor and wretched of the third world. But the play is not a simple parable, but an interesting meditation on values and worth, both cultural and financial. I sympathised with both women in the end, but also felt guilty at our own corpulent excesses in England (Scotland or wherever). England is an evocative, intelligent piece which I very much hope to see again in London soon.

Over 40 more reviews to come I hope!

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Off to Edinburgh

So, after a bit of Hollywood muscle tonight (I’m seeing The Bourne Ultimatum), I’ll be off to Edinburgh first thing tomorrow morning. My Fringe starts at 4pm, with Dai (Enough) at the Pleasance, a show about the lives of people in a Tel Aviv café in the moments before a suicide bomber kills them (all the characters are portrayed by one woman). Then I have another three shows that day (including a meeting with a transvestite, a tour a round an art gallery and something concerning a rabbit), and an average of 5 or 6 each day until I leave on Sunday 26th (for an nine hour train/bus journey, due to railway engineering works. Is it any wonder people fly?!). My International Festival kicks off on Saturday afternoon with John Tiffany’s production of The Bacchae at the King’s Theatre. Will this NTS production live up to Tiffany’s superlative, thrilling Blackwatch seen at last years festival (it finally gets a London run next year at the Barbican by the way)? Only time will tell.

I’m very excited as usual about the Festivals, so many interesting and varied shows to see (including several promising art exhibitions), plus that unique festival city vibrancy (and the general beauty of the city itself). It’s also lovely to be in a place where you can walk to most of the places you want to get to, no hour (plus) tube and bus journeys necessary. Although I do often get a cab home in the early hours when the stolid taxi driver will undoubtedly say ‘up for the festival, eh?’, and then tell me about the occasion he and his lady wife attended the Lady Boys of Bangkok show in the Meadows several years ago. It was great and ‘he doesn’t mind the festival all that much’.

I’ll try and post when I can about my experiences, but I don’t have a laptop or access to a computer up there, so it’ll just be if and when I manage to get to an internet café at a convenient time.

Otherwise I’ll do a retrospective when I get back!

UPDATE 23:00, 16/08/07: Very impressed with The Bourne Ultimatum. It’s a very stylish and surprisingly intelligent thriller (as far as action adventures go, obviously if you look too deeply it all falls apart), great action and extremely tense at moments. Matt Damon has great screen presence, with an icy Julia Stiles in a supporting role (I’ve seen both on the London stage, with Stiles making a big impression in Oleanna. Didn’t you just want to strangle her?). British director Paul Greengrass (also responsible for the powerful United 93) is a meticulous director, the scenes set in London are so real, with Farringdon and Waterloo correctly depicted (one of the characters is a Guardian journalist!). As opposed to some films that take great liberties with familiar locations, like 28 Weeks Later, which drove Londoners mad (walking from Greenwich to Wembley via the Jubilee Line! You can’t driver from there to there!). If I put Bourne against the other Hollywood blockbusters this summer (the decent Harry Potter, the middling Simpsons and the execrable Transformers to name but three) it wins hands down, it’s exciting and entertaining.

Spirit and Life; Global Cities; Zaha Hadid; Jonathan Barnbrook; Hreinn Fridfinnsson; Porgy & Bess

Spirit and Life. Ismaili Centre.

Spirit and Life is a real gem of an exhibition at the home of London’s Ismaili (a branch of Islam) community, the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. The building is very striking (I’ve been around it on pervious open days), with its clean lines and Islamic geometry but in a 1980’s modernist shell (the calm roof garden and central prayer hall take you gently away from the bustle of the Cromwell Road outside).

The exhibition comprises of masterpieces from the Aga Khan’s collection, intended to be housed in his new museum in Toronto (to be opened in 2010). London was to have hosted the full collection, but various planning and other objections sadly drove the planned museum across the Atlantic.

The Islam depicted here is of artistic achievement, progress, peace, culture and absolute beauty. People should certainly remember this side of history when tarring all Islam with the brush of fundamentalism (and I totally condemn Islamic fundamentalism and terror, and recognise that it is a threat to us in the UK by the by), this is a gross misunderstanding of the religion and an insult to millions of people today (I’m an atheist secularist, but I’m not a hater of religion in general. Religion has given us much of what is beautiful and worthwhile in our culture, as well as some laudable values, and cannot be dismissed as simply irrational in my view).

On display in several thematically distinct sections are iridescent pages from the Qur’an, totally incomprehensible to me but none the less beautiful simply as objects, or drawings of astonishing detail, taking you into the scene, a new detail to relish in every centimetre of the page. We have musical instruments that would have once been played for dignitaries or at weddings perhaps, jewellery and metalwork that stuns in its astonishing delicacy, and pottery, some of which looks so timeless I can imagine using it today (and I mean that as a high compliment).

This exhibition really is hard to describe, its contents ranges from the 9th to the 19th Centuries, from China to North Africa via India and Indonesia, to several different dynasties and regions, but praising one god. It is an uplifting experience, such beauty usually is, and the mind really does boggle; how can human hands make such delicate illustrations or jewellery?

The exhibition is relatively small, but perfectly formed. It closes on the 31st August and is free, I recommend anyone interested in art to catch it while you can.

Global Cities. Tate Modern.

Global Cities is not only an art exhibition (and I don’t mean ‘only’ pejoratively) but a factual survey of some the larger cities of the world, including London, New York, Tokyo and Istanbul. Seeing London’s density compared to Cairo is quite sobering, we are very lucky to have back gardens and parks throughout much of the city. The exhibition starting point is the fact that for the first time over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, a trend that will grow massively in the coming decade (and this urbanisation sweeping the globe is going to cause all sorts of problems for everyone).

The exhibition (in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall) takes the form of large graphics and photographs interspersed with models showing density and video instillations covering various aspects of city life (by a variety of artists around the world). Other statistics include numbers of people commuting by public transport in various cities, or the scale of diversity (for example 95% of those moving to London since 1995 were born outside of the UK, and nearly a third of Londoners are non white. But Shanghai has less than 1% of residents who were born outside of China, the city being nearly totally ethnic Chinese). It really is one of the most interesting (dare I say educational) experiences in London at the moment.

P.S: I’m sure Helio Oiticica is a very important artist, but did anyone else find his exhibition at the Tate Modern rather dull? I liked the origami style handing pieces and some of the paintings which can be simple block of colour but seem highly layered with great depth, but even so it was too huge a retrospective for my tastes. Is this a problem with big galleries, having to fill big spaces all of the time?)

Zaha Hadid, Architecture and Design. Design Museum.

Zaha Hadid is a very interesting woman, a British Iraqi architect with a very international flavour. This stylish exhibition (well this is the Design Museum) is a visual treat, especially for those of us who love architecture (and sleek architects models), but I think Hadid is more of an artist than an architect. The simple fact is that her extreme shaped buildings are very exciting to look at, but very challenging to build. I was struck by the number of years some even modest projects were still in development, a decade in some cases (she had a period of several years when nothing was built). Hadid’s ideas inspire, and the few buildings of hers that have been build delight, but I don’t think she’ll ever be as ubiquitous as Lords Foster (The Gherkin, City Hall) or Rodgers (The Dome, Lloyd’s Building), despite a huge glut of projects currently on the go.

Jonathan Barnbrook – Friendly Fire. Design Museum.

If you don’t know who Jonathan Barnbrook is, as I didn’t before visiting this exhibition at the Design Museum, you will very likely have seen his (or his agency’s) work. It is supposedly iconoclastic anti-establishment, subversive graphic design (posters, book covers, t-shirts even), but it annoys the hell out of me. Basically these slick operators cast themselves as outsiders, but their work is orthodoxy to many people, and working with that noted anti capitalist Damien Hirst (designing book covers, presumably intended to make money, and helping with his ill fated Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, another commercial venture and posh venue) is hardly the act of radicals. Their works is mind numbingly obvious, and takes swipes at very easy targets (like McDonalds or Nike). I don’t particularly support these brands, and would certainly not buy anything made using child or illegal labour (I don’t own any Nike by the way), but neither do I think that they are the biggest evil in the world (and even within the world of consumerism which these people attack, they are absolutely part of it too). True political action and conviction is to be admired, but trendy, easy, fashionable (especially amongst the wealthy but shabby chic Shoreditch types, themselves conspicuous consumers of a different ilk) sloganising is not courageous (and is quite profitable judging by the Barnbrook company’s growth in recent years).

Hreinn Fridfinnsson. Serpentine Gallery.

Located in Hype Park, the Serpentine Gallery is not only housed in a beautiful setting, but is a gallery that punches above its weight (the gallery space is not huge, but neither is it tiny). Currently Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Iceland’s most noted contemporary artist fills its elegant rooms. Works on display range from the early 1970’s to very recent works.

It is conceptual art, philosophical musings on the everyday; it is simple and striking, sometimes enigmatic but never tricksy or pretentious. He uses photographs and large scale instillations, often with words, to great effect. You do feel challenged by the works on show, it is everyday but slightly subversive of the everyday feel. A shoe and a mirror entitled ‘A Pair’, or a collection of stirring sticks, with a variety of pain colours, arranged on the wall like a giant colour chart (but less clear cut).

Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen have designed the Serpentine Pavilion 2007. Which is basically a big brown helter skelter type structure. It is great fun, visually arresting and a nice addition to the park’s skyscape. Plus put together with Fridfinnsson, their names make up the best triptych of wonderful sounding (or possibly unpronounceable) sobriquets imaginable.

Porgy and Bess

A friend recently gave me a CD of Porgy and Bess, he knew I liked the show and had seen a reasonably priced recording online and bought it. But no ordinary recording; he had accidentally bought me an album recorded in the 1956 (and apparently a hit in the US in 1962) by various jazz legends, and what a treat it is.

The famous Bethlehem Orchestra and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra combine (many of these musicians notable in their own right) with the vocal talents of Mel Torme as Porgy, Frances Faye as Bess and George Kirby as Sportin’ Life, amongst others, plus a chorus too. Other notable non opera versions of the Gershwin’s 1935 (nearly) all black opera include the Miles Davis instrumental recording and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version (neither of which I have heard, but both of which I have just bought online due to the curiosity and admiration for Porgy & Bess in Jazz mode sparked by this recording). This shows how versatile (and indeed lasting) the material is. I’ve loved Porgy and Bess in its traditional form for years (I have a three disc operatic version already), so hearing this jazz album was something very different, but totally right, and enveloping sense of the time and place is brought to mind when listening to these talented artists.

Hearing the music of two New York Jewish composers, writing about black people in the Deep South, being performed in New York by a band of people who were all steeped in the history of black music, and bringing their own special musical qualities to the piece, is something very singular indeed. I am not a particular fan of jazz, I certainly like it in passing, but Porgy and Bess is special, even on disc it is still theatre. The lush bluesy jazz arrangements with the strong, rich voice of Mel Torme are a perfect combination.

Daratt, Fanny and Alexander and Cinema at the Barbican

Daratt

I saw the excellent Daratt at the NFT (now officially BFI Southbank). A rare film from Chad, about a boy who goes in search of a man who’d killed his father during the bitter civil war, but forms an unlikely bond (he’s after revenge, when possible war criminals were given a general amnesty by the post conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The film is extraordinary, in that it totally griped me and had me very moved by the end, but it is so spare with words (almost taciturn), that each one spoken seemed to be imbued with great significance. The society depicted is African and Muslim, chaotic but recognisable, it is essentially the story of two human beings finding out about one another, about hatreds, friendships and love. But don’t get me wrong, this is not a film that forces issues, it lets you sit back and watch a very natural story unfold (even though the African setting, and the dearth of speech should alienate us talkative rich Westerners). Do go and see it if you are interested in great world cinema, such a shame that it’s only on at the NFT though, I certainly think it deserves a wider audience amongst art cinemas at least.

P.S: The new wing of the NFT/BFI Southbank, is a striking glass box type structure running along the National Theatre side under Waterloo Bridge (where the much missed Museum of the Moving Image once was, I remember reading the new and flying as Superman there on a school trip!). The NFT now has a shop again, plus a very decent new restaurant and bar (which seems empty compared to the packed bars and restaurants directly on the Southbank, but it slightly pricier), complimenting the rather dingy bar out front (which is now actually the back I suppose). They also have a small gallery, the second and current exhibition at which is Hold: Vessel 2, 2007, by Lynette Wallworth, an interactive instillation. The room is in total darkness apart from 3 beams of light coming from the ceiling, you are given a white plastic bowl which you hold under the beams to reveal various and changing images of microscopic cells moving about, multiplying and the like. I only stayed for a few minutes, but the exhibition is a pleasing sensory experience (though for me not particularly revelatory).

Fanny and Alexander

Shortly after I saw the magnificent and beautiful The Seventh Seal at the Curzon Soho last month, the director Ingmar Bergman died at the ripe old age of 89 having lived a remarkable life. The Renoir (part of the same group as Curzon), decided in remembrance of the master filmmaker that it would show one of his greatest films, Fanny and Alexander, originally released in 1982. And how delighted I am that they have done so, for to be able to see two such stunning films, for the first time, within the space of a month is extremely good fortune (though sad circumstances surround the seeing second). What can I say about Fanny and Alexander, except that everyone should rush to see it whilst it is still on the big screen, or otherwise try and see it on DVD, it is truly outstanding. I sat in the main auditorium at the Renoir with a nearly full house for three and a half hours, and I think only 3 people went to the toilet. That’s not something the film critics will mention, but is indicative of the quality of the film (sitting for that length of time without an interval is usually my idea of hell. Some friends did say that they thought there would be an interval, but the staff seemed nonplussed as the very suggestion). Apparently loosely based on the directors own childhood, the film (set from in the first decade of the twentieth century in Sweden, well before Bergman’s birth in 1918) follows the siblings of the title from opulent surrounding in their Grandmother’s splendid and loving house, to awful conditions in their horrible Bishop Stepfather’s severe home, and back again to the loving embrace of their extended family. The level of captivating detail is astonishing, the cast of characters so real and mostly quite appealing, the acting outstanding and the direction faultless. Indeed the world created by Bergman is so vivid you feel like getting up and experiencing the exceptionally lavish Christmas feast and joyful games with the theatrical family of Fanny and Alexander. Bergman’s script, the atmosphere he creates could only be conjured by a man who loved observing people and has an eye for detail, the ability to spot the ring of truth not only in an actor but in a line or scene. The films is dark and light, it encompasses comedy and tragedy, it even explores mysticism and features one of Bergman’s other loves (his faithful wife as opposed to film, an exacting mistress, as he noted), the theatre (including a few references to Hamlet), it is a true saga. The film won four Oscars, but awards can’t speak for a film like this, it must be seen.

I also chanced upon the Arena program about Bergman, on Tuesday night on BBC2. Encountering Bergman was an illuminating 40 minutes featuring people who had spent time talking to the man himself. Sarabad, his last film, was also shown on BBC4 directly after the documentary, unfortunately I didn’t have access to BBC4 that night, otherwise it would have been a very Bergman filled day. But seeing Arena did make me delighted to have a broadcaster like the BBC available at the touch of a button, despite the fact that I can’t remember actually seeing any other Arena programme for many years (that title music and the floating bottle always remind me of my childhood, when I would watch Arena with fascination and/or obliviousness!)

Cinema at the Barbican

Turning to the Barbican and showing at their three cinema screens for the last week have been the Hollywood movies Hairspray, Evan Almighty and The Walker. Next week sees The Bourn Ultimatum taking up residence in screen one. Now, all of these films are available in multiplexes around the country (The Walker less so, but still has a wide distribution), so the question has to be, why is the Barbican showing such mainstream films? Is the theatre or music it showcases in its other auditoria available in every High Street across the county? No, it is the best in its respective field specifically programmed for one of London’s pre-eminent arts venues. Previously I have always looked to the Barbican for great films that aren’t available at Shepherds Bush Vue or similar picture palaces, but recently I’ve had to turn to the Renoir, the Curzon or the redoubtable NFT/BFI (two of which I probably wouldn’t have visited over the last month if the film was available at the Barbican). Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean the Barbican can stop providing a different and artistically worthy programme. It’s not that I’m against the films that they are showing, just the Barbican should not be showing them to the detriment (actually exclusion) of less widely distributed works (I’ve seen Hairspray and intend to see The Bourne Ultimatum, but at ordinary commercial cinemas). Please live up to your reputation and provide us with the best films from around the world, perhaps a retrospective or special season should be planned for the slower summer moths in the future? But with Fanny and Alexander and Daratt only being shown on one screen each at the moment, any duplication of such excellent movies would be welcome too (and clearly bring them to a wider audience simply by making it easier for people to see them).

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Review: The Hamlet Project

Descending, on a hot, clammy but rainy evening, to the very intimate Arcola Studio 2, in the former garment factory turned into one of London’s best theatres, is very reminiscent of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Hamlet Project, a condensed version of the great Shakespeare play, actually originated at last year’s festival, getting respectable notices.

Firstly let me say that this is a great show, well performed and highly entertaining. Here the Prince of Denmark’s role has been split between two actors who appear onstage at the same time, making his soliloquies into conversations between himself. Actually that is exactly what a monologue is, thinking aloud onstage, a debate as to the best course of action, the assessing of ideas, so the splitting or the role works very well and makes absolute sense.

Ever time I see Hamlet, or a version of it, I am surprised to be reminded of just how huge the range of sayings and phrases derived from the play are (‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘the lady doth protest too much’, ‘the play’s the thing’ and ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ for a start). The Hamlet Project gives us the greatest hits in a whirlwind 95 minutes (Hamlet can run to 4 hours or more), omitting Rosencrantz or Guildenstern or anything else not totally fundamental to the plot. In this sense it is reductive, but as an introduction to the play it is excellent and comprehensible, plus for those more familiar with the work the dual Hamlets and good acting make a revisit worthwhile too.

There are problems in Hannah Kaye’s production (she also does the nifty adaptation), but they can mostly be put down to the fact that 5 actors have to perform the show with no help and a necessarily tiny budget in a minuscule basement (a remarkable feat really). The utilitarian set consisting of a scaffold frame with cloths suspended from it (creating a tiny backstage area), is let down several times when the velcro fastenings holding the cloth up fail (causing a few laughs when the actors ‘backstage’ are forced to rotate the cloth hiding them from the audience at one point).

That technical/monetary hitch aside, the major problem for me was The Murder of Gonzago/The Mousetrap, the play that is performed before the Royal court. This was represented by a film beamed onto the backcloth, and was rather sketchy (with ‘Digital DVD’ appearing before and after the short piece, somewhat breaking the mood), and didn’t have much impact. The film seemed out of place with the rest of the production (which is low tech and nicely simple), and rather clunky. It gave the impression that it was included just because they could do so, rather than to fit a coherent vision of the play.

Claudius and Gertrude are played by the same female actor (folding her collar up and down accordingly, constantly ranging between the two parts), which is fine until the duel scene, when some leaden ‘my husband tells me not to drink’ line is forced to take place instead of the real dialogue. The production also rewinds key moments/lines, replaying them with different emphasis and outcomes. This is a fine idea (thinking about what the text means and the multiple possibilities the set words offer us is half the fun of seeing several production of the same play), but the horrible 80’s rewind sound effect that precedes each example ruined the moment for me.

The two Hamlets’ are generally very well played, but a version like this is never going to draw out a particularly deep or memorable interpretation. Robert Donnelley and Ton McClane play the role, one of whom looks uncannily like Toby Stephens’s younger brother, I can’t say which because there is no programme pictures for me to delineate between the two Princes. Particularly good though is James Hogg, playing several roles including Polonius and Laertes, I hope to be seeing him on the stage again soon.

Not quite ‘a hit, a very palpable hit’, but a great effort by some clearly talented young people, and an interesting and worthwhile evening.

P.S: Seeing Gilbert & George eating their dinner at their usual Turkish restaurant (I can also attest to its excellence) and eating a piece of truly fresh baklava from the excellent quality Turkish sweets shop (near Arcola Street on the High Rd) is an added bonus of the unique Dalston.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The Dome; Panic Attack!; Culture Secretary; A Flowering Tree.

The Dome

It was a depressing but also happy experience visiting what was formerly known as the Millennium Dome, now the O2 (don’t you just love sponsorship? I’m still calling it The Dome).

Depressing because of the tacky and homogenised corporate parade of restaurants housed on the main drag, or some of the truly awful concerts planned in its various venues (but each to his own).
Happy because finally something useful that is not costing us lots of money is being done with the building. There are plenty of good concerts planned, and even an exhibition (Tutankhamen, a highly commercial touring show with eye watering prices being talked about). And of course I do actually approve of people having a good time, even if that does mean eating at Nando’s followed by a drink in the Slug and Lettuce or watching Take That perform their greatest hits.
I personally enjoyed visiting the Dome in 2000, and it was Britain’s most popular paid for visitor attraction that year. I thought it a shame the exhibition had to close on the 31/12/00, as I’m sure a year or two more would have done well at the box office and given the Government more time to plan what to do with it afterwards. The Dome has become an essential part of the London skyline and an icon of our city, and I do actually like looking at it (in moderation). So I wish it well, and I’ll be back for King Tut.

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years. Barbican Art Gallery.

A superb exhibition of aft from the brief flowering of punk in the mid to late 1970’s and it’s aftermath into the early 1980’s. All your favourite (and maybe not so favourite) iconoclast 70/80’s artists are here, arranged thematically (in a rather orderly and un punk arranged gallery), including Basquiat, Cosi Fanni Tutti, Gilbert & George, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, Mapplethorpe, Jenny Holzer, Derek Jarman and many others (I always forget how big the Barbican Art Gallery is).

I’m not going to comment much upon the exhibition, but I was very struck by some of the later works by Nan Golding, Mark Morrisroe and Stephen Willats, whose photograpghic works (with text and objects in the case of Willats), were powerful self portraits and extraordinarily vivid and engaging.

Not being alive when punk came to the fore, and not being a particular fan (or anti either), I had never quite put some of these artists together, let alone so comprehensively coupling them with the punk music scene. It was an unflinching and fascinating exhibition.

Culture Secretary and Culture

Before attending the concert that I describe below (a new John Adams opera directed by Peter Sellars), I saw Ruth Mackenzie (now the Manchester International Festival second in command) and our new Culture Secretary James Purnell striding purposefully through the hallways and then again enjoying a drink before the performance (after a fascinating talk by the director). What’s more it seemed it wasn’t a political visit for the cameras or an event he had to attend, but something he wanted to attend and was interested in. No offence to Tessa Jowell, now demoted to Olympic Minister, but can you see her at a John Adams Opera at the Barbican, not holding court but simply attending the performance? I couldn’t. Going to a football match, motor racing or launching a casino yes, ‘elitist’ culture, no. So welcome to Mr Purnell, genuinely interested in the arts it seems (based on more then just his attendance on Friday night I should add). Any chance you could reverse the funding cuts?

A Flowering Tree, Barbican Hall.

I attended the pre show talk given by Peter Sellars, director of the New Crowned Hope Festival, (a festival originally held in Vienna at the end of last year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, with new works responding to his works) and director of John Adams’s latest opera (indeed also the collaborator on his last two opera’s seen in London). He is a persuasive and charming speaker, and also comes across as a very nice man. His talk was interesting, hearing about the thoughts behind creative works is always informative (and it really helped me understand the opera and why it was put together in the way that it was).

I thought the piece excellent, a beautiful and meaningful piece of music and theatre. Adams eschews his modern aesthetic (Nixon in China or The Death of Klinghoffer are both very modern feeling, despite the former also evoking the early 1970’s), in favour of a two thousand year old Indian folk myth about a woman who can turn into a stunning flowering tree (she marries a price and then is left in limbo by his jealous sister. Eventually being reunited with him and restored to her human form). He was inspired towards this tale by Mozart’s Magic Flute, which also deals with magic and transformation. The opera is minimalist with only 3 main voices, but a large chorus occasionally intervening. The chorus are the Venezuelan Schola Cantorium, who sing in Spanish as opposed to the principal's singing in English. The chorus are really thrilling, dressed in Indian robes, and sat behind the orchestra; they jump up and blast you with their extraordinary voices in Adams discordant style. The principals are joined by 3 Javanese dancers, on a stage behind and above the orchestra and chorus. The Javanese dancers use their traditional dances to represent the characters, in the second act fusing with the singer almost becoming one entity. Their dancing is astounding, slow, gracious and purposeful, with stunning self control and precision.

It all adds up to a moving, musically challenging (but rich, becoming more dangerous in the second act) evening of great beauty. The duality of the self is explored, as is magic and wonder, but in a very understated and non pretentious way. The two thousand year old poetry is undiminished by time; I’m putting it on my Christmas list. It is only a semi staged concert, but because of the simplicity of the opera and pared down dramatic elements (it is more or less a series of monologues anyway), with the dance as the main visual element, it never felt like second best.

Review: Helen of Troy

Whilst I admire the principal of free outdoor theatre at The Scoop (the amphitheatre next to City Hall on the South bank of the Thames), Helen of Troy is a pretty bad example. I’ve enjoyed Phil Willmott’s production at this venue over the last 5 years, but Helen of Troy seems too dumbed down, with pretensions to relevancy (American Imperialism or knife crime anyone?). You don’t need to shoehorn relevant issues into ancient Greek drama, it has its own special ability to talk to us today (as many recent productions have shown). Willmott also makes a big mistake in adapting Euripides play too harshly, he turn verse into sometimes very pedestrian English (which jar with the more high blown passages). He effectively abolishes the chorus and sets the action in Libya rather than Egypt for some reason. I realise that his 75 minute version must be concise and comprehensible, but making Hermes (the God) a hoody wearing game console player and having Atticus (Menelaus’s slave) played as a camper than Christmas butler (sub panto) was beyond what was necessary in my view. It just seemed crass and without real reason, everything becoming over the top by then end (talk about a camp King). The story is an alternative version of the conventional Helen myth, here Helen is actually in North Africa for the duration of the Trojan war, the Helen present in Troy being a phantom sent by the Gods (remember Helen’s dad is Zeus!). It has narrative power, even in this version.

The acting was broad outdoor acting, which is exactly what I expected, and perfectly reasonable. But I wasn’t convinced by the beach hut set either. Despite its manifold faults, sitting in this amphitheatre on a lovely evening as the sun goes down is quite pleasurable, and seeing a play for free can’t hurt you, can it?

Review: The Waltz of the Toreadors

We don’t see many of the French playwright Jean Anouilh’s works, he seems to be quite out of fashion at the moment. The Waltz of the Toreadors give me some reason as to why this is the case. However Anouilh’s work falls into several categories, this being one of his black comedies, so is not wholly representative of his oeuvre which includes more serious allegorical pieces and histories.

Veteran adaptor Ranjit Bolt serves up a new translation for the revival of this 1952 play at the Minerva Theatre (Chichester). The production is laudable (a rare play by a neglected playwright is usually welcomed by me), but it is not wholly successful. The play at first seems like a mild farce, but then becomes a more interesting glimpse at sexual dysfunction and obsession, but it never fully commits to the latter path. Angus Jackson directs a cast led by Peter Bowles as General St Pe, retired and living in his country châteaux with his bed ridden wife, now writing his memoirs with the help of a young orphan (cue a plot twist). The cosy pre World War One life of St Pe (it’s 1910), has a jollity that would probably be missing from the life of the next generation of soldiers. He talks of disgusting cruelties perpetrated by the French towards their colonial subjects with casual jocularity when dictating his memoirs (colonial misdeeds seem so far removed from real life at home and can be laughed at, war at home can not be treated in that way). So he has a darker side to him than a wistful sex obsessed toff would normally show in a sex farce. He is also deeply troubled by sex despite his surface obsession with woman and his purported success with them. He is fixated by one woman whom he has never slept with in over 20 year of romance, he clearly has no time in the bedroom for his needy hypochondriac wife either (who he was supposedly planning to leave for his other woman, but clearly never really would or could).

The General is a man who has got the clubbable manly persona, but has no real ability or probably deep interest in the woman he talks about. I think this sort of behaviour is actually quite common amongst some men, not necessarily a total disregard for women or their wives, but a ritualistic obsession with sex and conquest (like the guys who comment extensively about Page 3 ‘Girls’ to each other on the bus), that says just as much about male posturing as it does about sexual prowess.

Peter Bowles is his usual suave self, with a dark streak of self doubt and teetering on emotional crises as the virginal General. Maggie Steed plays his wife beautifully, so annoying that you can understand her husband's coolness towards her. Nicholas Woodeson plays his confident and her doctor (and admirer) with in a solidly doctorish manner. Parts of the play remind me of Bernard Shaw, particularly the drawing room rhetoric and Ranjit Bolt also helps things along with his modish, but never jarring, translation. The play ends with the General as a very sad and lonely figure, setting about to seduce his new maid (for another eternal non consummated romance). He has been usurped by the younger generation, not needed anymore, but desperate for approval and company.

The play is enjoyable enough if you like farce, but parts of it didn’t make me laugh at all, it was most effective for me when more serious matters of motivation were touched upon, ending poignantly.

Review: Hobson’s Choice

You couldn’t ask for a better traditional staging of Hobson’s Choice than this production directed by Jonathan Church at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Harold Brighouse’s 1915 play is set in Salford in the 1880’s revolves around the haughty, snobbish and arrogant Henry Horatio Hobson, a widower, father to three grown up daughters and proprietor of a shoe shop in which they all work (him far less than anyone else). It is a brilliant play, not only a great comedy, but an interesting examination of women’s growing independence and the sometimes sour reality of family relationships and loyalties. It can be viewed as vaguely proto feminist, but also deeply cynical about human nature (and women), with the motivation of money and class being at the centre of all the events. These conflicts and mores were brilliantly shown in Tanika Gupta’s 2003 Young Vic version of the play, with the action transposed to a modern day Northern British Asian family, but the original 1880’s setting feels just as relevant (if different) at Chichester.

Hobson’s ‘past it’ eldest daughter (at the ripe old age of 30, imagine) Maggie decides that she won’t be left on the shelf forever, so plans to marry the shop’s illiterate but highly skilled boot maker, Willie Mossop (who is a rather reluctant groom), and set up their own business due to her father’s refusal to consent to her proposed marriage or a improved position for them both in his shop (she wants a modest wage after working for her father all her adult life). Hobson’s rails against his ‘uppish’ daughters, and when realising they might require some sort of dowry he decided to cancel his plan to marry off his two younger daughters, keeping them on as unpaid servants to him and his shop. Maggie and Willie do reasonably well in their modest basement premises, due to Willie’s excellent craftsmanship, his general reputation and Maggie’s steely drive. Maggie is a very stern and determined woman not prone to emotionalism, she clearly also has the best interests and happiness of her sisters in mind, as she devises a plan to get them married off to their respective and respectable sweethearts. After this plan comes to fruition Hobson is left alone in his house, with his shop in dire straits (due to Willie and Maggie’s success), his three daughters all established in their marital homes. Hobson becomes ill (victim of alcoholism and general bad health) and his stern Scottish doctor ‘prescribes’ one of his daughters to come and look after him. Naturally his now proud and vain younger daughters, married off to professional men (above Hobson’s mercantile middle class status), are not interested in returning to live above a shoe shop and Maggie is left to care for her father. She drives a hard bargain, forcing her father to give control of the shop up to Willie, but despite her harsh exterior she is the real heart of the family, almost the surrogate mother to them all (even of her husband, whom she ‘improves’). Maggie is a woman who would do anything to get what she wants; she is ruthless and able to sacrifice what she sees as petty things in the short term in order to reach her ultimate goal, which seems to be having lots of money. She doesn’t need respectability here and now, living in a basement in order to build her business is fine by her (as opposed to her class obsessed sisters). She reminds everyone several times how much more she thinks her husband will have in the bank in a few years, than they will. She is the perfect example of hardworking aspirational free market capitalists, Mrs Thatcher would be truly proud. Yet at the same time there is a genuine caring, sympathetic edge to her, she really does do the best for her sisters and father. But happily Brighouse doesn’t fall into the trap of Northern emotionalism; in fact the play becomes quite sharp towards the end.

The direction is crisp without being too breezy, and no hint of sentimentality is allowed to creep into the play. The acting is generally excellent, with Carolyn Backhouse as a perfectly stern Maggie and John Savident a perfectly pompous Hobson. Dylan Charles as Willie is a charmingly docile creature, who finally become alive in the final scene (thanks to his wife of course), Alistair Findlay relished the small role of Doctor McFarlane (why are stony faced Calvinist Scots so perfect as Doctors?). The production tours after its run at Chichester (including to Richmond, London), so catch it where you can.

Review: Martin Guerre

Firstly a confession; I actually enjoyed Les Miss and Miss Saigon, and also thought a previous West End version of Martin Guerre wasn’t too bad either (but I was a teenager then!). So I must have a soft spot for grand, sweeping, lush scored musicals, which are dreadfully unfashionable and sniggered at by many intellectual theatre types (however, I don’t actually have to watch them very often). I also have a huge love for the Watermill Theatre near Newbury, one of the most beautiful theatres in England. It is sat next to a river and adjacent to a stunning nature reserve and a pretty, tiny village, so the setting is pretty ideal (even for a born and bred city boy without a particular love for the countryside).

So arriving for a new production of Martin Guerre at the theatre (in a taxi from Newbury, it is impossible to visit by bus or train alone), I had high hopes, which were also bolstered to a couple of positive reviews I had read. So by now you know that it had to disappoint, and it did. It is the story is of a 16th Century French peasant who flees his new wife (marriage unconsummated) and cruel village, staying away for 7 years before returning to his old home. In the meantime his friend from the army visits the village in order to tell them of Martin’s supposed death in the wars, but is mistaken for him and is eagerly accepted by the villages (and indeed Mrs Guerre). The background to this is religious strife between the Catholic Villagers and local Protestants (and indeed Catholics and Protestants generally), whom the fake Martin eventually joins, causing him to be rejected as an impostor by the Catholic village who so readily accepted him when he shared their faith. Inter Christian hatred doesn’t exactly seem like the hot topic of our time, and it fails to say much about religious fundamentalism beyond ‘it’s bad’.

Most importantly the material and the production are not quite right for each other. The Watermill is a tiny space, so directors’ have to fit their work onto a much smaller canvass than at most other regional theatres, so directors like John Doyle have brought the theatre to our attention with excellent actor/musician productions, where the cast are also the band. Doyle in particular has managed to strip back Sondheim’s work to its emotional core, which works perfectly with the works of the worlds most intelligent and greatest living composer of musicals. Unfortunately director Craig Revel Horwood has done the same with Martin Guerre, Boublil and Schonberg’s 1996 West End musical (their latest, The Pirate Queen, has just tanked on Broadway). But Martin Guerre is not a show which can be striped back, the composers have a very set style and tinkering with the storyline and getting rid of seemingly extraneous dialogue is not wise. They are the masters of the lush, pop-ish, romantic musical, not of emotional truth and revelations like Sondheim. You need the finery and big cast for their work to feel complete. So in this production the story really seems truncated, and the second act in particular descends into melodrama with one revelation after another.

I think Revel Horwood has actually done a good job of the direction and choreography (as opposed to the adaptation), and this is certainly not an awful production. The cast of 12 (as opposed to 30 or more in the West End) all do well, but Andrew Bevis as Martin and Ben Goddard as Arnaud the impostor Martin, both seem a tad camp. Kelly O’Leary is sympathetic as Mrs Guerre and Michael Howcroft making a particular impression as the Catholic Priest and later the Judge.

At just over 2 hours Martin Guerre is a roller coaster of emotions and plot, with all the usual variety from the composers (the bawdy number, the love duet, the slightly homoerotic male duet, the big sweeping company numbers etc), which includes some memorable songs and good performances. It was very ambitious of Revel Horwood to do such a seemingly large scale musical in such a tiny space, he actually couldn’t have made it any bigger if he’d wanted too. If this does come to the West End, some of the physical staging problems could possibly be sorted out, and at the right price would be worth seeing for those of the Les Miserables inclination.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Review: Grease

Grease at the Piccadilly Theatre is one of the most brashly unsubtle, in-your-face, crass and cynical shows imaginable. It is probably also the cheapest looking musical currently in the West End, with production values akin to a large armature groups.

When I sit down to watch such a below par, cheap and tacky money making machine, my heart cannot fail to bleed for the people for whom this is a real treat, a rare experience of the thrill of live theatre. I’m sure many of them will eagerly return to another West End behemoth for next decade’s theatre trip, and the packed auditorium was filled with people noisily (even ostentatiously) determined to have a good time, despite the shocking spectacle on stage, but I still have an objection to bad theatre however commercially successful it may be (and this is a licence print money). It’s not that I have some moral disapproval towards commercial theatre, I accept that it’s a business and lives in discordant union with the subsidised sector (like a Stanley Kowalski to a Blanche DuBois), but popular musicals should be fun, uplifting and most importantly well made. This is none of those things.

Grease is apparently Britain’s favourite musical (according to a C4 poll of a couple of years ago, now eagerly promoted by this production), and it is not served well by the reality TV cast production, actually a retread of the 1993 staging (so Joseph and Grease both simply resurrect old versions of themselves, isn’t it time for something new?). The 1972 musical (with the famous 1978 John Travolta film) is not a great show in my view, but I am convinced that it can be done with more charm, chemistry and brio than this clunking fist of a production directed by David Gilmore. The production is all about sex, but has absolutely no sexual energy between any of the characters, it is all laddish innuendo and nothing more. The acting is also rather poor, being of the broad as the Thames Estuary variety; the cast are likeable enough, but the direction has put a stop to any personality or character actually emerging onstage. The TV winners Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden as Danny and Sandy respectively are better then I expected (given the pisspor TV show), with Bayne able to dance and able to hold the required notes, and McFadden singling prettily and looking wholesome until her rebirth as a sexy chick at the end of the show (which is not convincing).

The music itself is awful, the huge sound emanating from an eight piece band (hovering on a platform above the stage) was enough to make me wish for a set of earplugs. Just like production the playing is over the top, overloud and jarring (but again, the musicians aren’t to blame, the director and his sound designer are).

This is a very obvious and non pc show (which would be fine if it actually worked), with no joy or escapist pleasure in the musical numbers (bar perhaps a hint of silliness during ‘We Go Together’ at the end of act 1, as no emotion is required and the whole company partake in synchronised hand jiving on the bleachers). Spending your money to see this production is not recommended, the DVD of the film and a packet of popcorn at home would be a much cheaper and more enjoyable experience.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Review: Absurdia

Absurdia at the Donmar Warehouse comprises of three short absurdist plays (although the plays may feature absurd situations they are not wholly absurdist in the philosophical sense), two dating from the 1950’s by N.F Simpson and a new work by Michael Frayn. I felt that the Simpson plays were superior to Frayn’s effort, with Simpson at least offering a few different jokes to divert us. Douglas Hodge makes his Donmar directorial debut as an associate director at the theatre (Hodge is best known for his acting career, he was an excellent Nathan Detroit in Michael Grandage’s Guys and Dolls).

The first play, A Resounding Tinkle, by Simpson, has us in the Paradock household, somewhere in suburban London. The Paradock’s elephant has been delivered, but it is several times bigger than ordered, which causes much fretting and consternation. Eventually a plan is devised to exchange the oversized pachyderm for a neighbour’s tiny snake, but in the meantime Mr Paradock is asked to form a government and a transsexual Uncle drops by. The play has plenty of jokes and absurd situations to delight its audience, the only problem being that I thought it was trying far too hard. Some of the jokes are very funny, but overall the self conscious cleverness wore thin. Simpson’s second piece of the evening is Gladly Otherwise, where an unknown bureaucrat barges into Mrs Brandywine’s home and starts ‘inspecting’ things, such as door knobs and wallpaper with a hint of officious menace. It only lasts 10 minutes, and that is just about right for a light comic vignette.

The dramatic low point of the evening was Michael Frayn’s play The Crimson Hotel; was it ever going to end? Was it only 3 minutes since I last checked my watch? My mind even turned to domestic arrangements and anticipation of the banana I was planning to eat on the way back to Holborn station, which is not a good sign (absurdist thought perhaps?). If this had been a 10 minute amusement like the previous piece I might have enjoyed the conceit, but at 30 minutes it far outstayed its welcome. We have a bare stage (with very decent set design for the 3 playlets by Vicki Mortimer) and two characters, one and actress the other the author of the play she is appearing in. The 19th century Parisian writer has taken the object of his lusts into the desert to seduce her, but she is resisting by putting up obstacles to their ‘rehearsal’ of the bedroom scene in the writer’s own play, and they both think that her husband might be on the horizon. The creaking of an unseen door and numerous other sound effects represent the red hotel bedroom of the title, and my god did it wear thin. The constant repetition, the supposedly hilarious physical acting out of the bedroom scene were not amusing at all after a while (and it was no character piece either). It became pure farce, with an absurdist touch at the end. It does have echoes of Frayn’s other work based around the theatre, Noises Off, but not an ounce of it’s genuine humour (I have to declare my partiality to Mr Frayn’s more sober works, rather then his comedy).

The acting by a the cast of four was very good, with Judith Scott as the worrisome Mrs Paradock, and Peter Capaldi as her husband (and the amorous playwright in the last play), on particularly brilliant form.
I detected a coolness in the audience towards all the pieces too, there were few hearty laughs and no applause between plays (the set is changed, it is obvious that one has finished and another about to begin). Perhaps you have to be in the mood for absurdist comedies, and I’m not particularly good with farce at the best of times. It is such as shame as I think Douglas Hodge is probably a very competent director and his cast are certainly very talented. But of course many people will roar with laughter, when it comes to comedy taste can be very personal indeed.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Review: The Enchantment

The Enchantment is a collectors’ item of a production. Written by Victoria Benedictsson, who is almost unknown in Britain, an obscure but apparently influential writer (to Strindberg and Ibsen in particular), The Enchantment receives its UK premier at the Cottesloe Theatre. The play was written in 1888 and premiered after her death (by suicide, also in 1888) in her native Sweden in 1910. At the time Benedictsson wrote under a male pseudonym, so scandalous was it for a woman to write a sexually frank book or play. The plot has Louise Strandberg (Nancy Carroll), a young Swede, living a physically fragile but independent life in the company of ex-pat artists and friends in Paris. She has no talent or artistic ‘vocation’; she is just there to have a change from her stifling provincial background, in love with the freedoms of Paris. Then comes along a (supposedly) beguiling and charming sculptor Gustave Alland (Zubin Varla), who she promptly falls in love with. But of course he’s not the genuine article, but a user and deceiver well used to seducing and then dropping women. Erna Wallden (Niamh Cusack), Louise’s upstairs neighbour (a painter), has clearly had an acrimonious past with Gustave, but poor Louise’s doesn’t take heed of her veiled, and eventually explicit warnings. The end of the play echoes the authors own life, when Louise commits suicide (offstage) in a rather melodramatic final scene. Benedictisson has taken her relationship with a noted critic, and his rejection of her, as a starting point for this pay, but it never really takes flight or has a life of its own. I couldn’t take the sometimes quite overemotional (and premature) relationships depicted seriously, I wanted to tell the characters to calm down and stop making a fuss. Crucially I never really believed in the reasons for their (or specifically her) love, and the play was not compelling enough (or well written enough) to convey a sense of longing or lust between the main protagonists. The nearest I got to believing in someone onstage, was the bitter Erna; she did seem scarred by her past relationship with Gustave, but I really couldn’t see what either of them saw in him. The talk in the final scene (back in Paris) is of the difference between great geniuses and us normal folk; Louise has the idea that Gustave is so brilliant that her love for him was a beautiful blessing for her, despite the ultimate rejection by the object of that love. This theory of artistic difference is interesting, but Louise had clearly gone out of her mind by then, deciding that her love would be crowned by her death. Gustave also makes a last minute appearance, raising the prospect that ultimately he was prepared to renege and come back to Louise, which I thought was a bizarre way to end a play that had been so convincing in the traducing of the selfish artist previously.

I can imagine how controversial these frank representations of emotion and extra marital relationships were in the 1880’s, still a highly conservative society, but now they seem trite and overcomplicated, they lack the compelling social commentary or innate reality of Ibsen or Strindberg at their best. So despite this being an interesting piece in terms of the development of European drama, an interesting night out in 2007 it is not. It dose have its moments, particularly in the second act when the action moves along apace and we finally see her at home in Sweden. We see how stifling social convention, small town morality and gossip can be, but again that’s nothing that Ibsen didn’t do far better. The production itself is of a good standard, Paul Miller directing his cast with sobriety, but the drab in the round set by Simon Daw did little for me. Acting was generally flowing and consummately professional, without being particularly ardent. Carroll is good as the moody Louise, but Varla is charmless as Gustave, his intonation gave the impression that everything he said (often very high blown rhetoric) was either a question or a grand statement of fact. Cusack was very good as Erna giving a quietly intense (sometimes angry) performance, and Hugh Skinner as Louise’s handsome step brother shows real promise.

Not an enchanting evening, actually a deadly bore at times. But if you’re not used to Ibsen, this is a just about a passable impersonation, and the production is probably better then the play itself.