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Antigone

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The National Theatre’s Antigone brings this ancient tragedy forth into a modern day setting. It is quite astounding how the ancient moral dilemmas are still very much applicable to today’s tumultuous society.

The tale is based upon social values, power, and mortality.  Antigone, the eponymous heroine, longs to follow her heart as well as her religious beliefs by giving the last burial rites to her dead brother Polynices, Yet her uncle, the newly crowned King Creon has decreed that the rebel must be denied these rites and be left unburied. The King is blinded by his sole focus on the power of the state and loses sight of all reason. The chorus arises from Creon’s support staff of office workers, guards, and mail room staff. 

This is the young director Polly Findlay’s first show in the cavernous Olivier Theatre. She and designer Soutra Gilmore have placed inside a pentagon-like office with armed security, glass walls, and desks made for paper shuffling. The rotating set is brilliant and once again provides another design triumph for the National. 

Christopher Eccleston’s performance as Creon is enchanting. You know the car crash is coming, but he so completely embodies the role, that the audience cant help but watch in awe and agony. His character is driven by both a personal certainty and a need for power that together create a poisonous mix. His continuous missteps – first with his niece Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) then with his son Heaemon, and finally with the soothsayer Tiresias (Jamie Ballard) – his pride continues to lead Creon right to the catastrophic fall.  Yet he is obstinately blind to the consequences. Ballard’s tortured performance as the scarred prophet who summons the furies is superb.Whittaker physicalises her torment and the accelerated descent from rebellion to insanity. 

This is a simple, straightforward, and faithful staging of Sophocles’s work. Findlay has successfully set this ancient story in modern times. It is a powerful piece that resonates. It is full of energy and the messages, thanks to the outstanding performances and high-paced staging, ring true. I left breathless. 

 Antigone runs at The National Theatre through the 21st of July 2012.

The Sunshine Boys

When the curtain rose at The Savoy, we were instantly met with the diminutive and unmistakable Danny Devito quietly sitting on his chair. I do realise that the words quiet and Danny Devito are not quite synonymous but do not fear, the brash and incandescent actor does eventually shine through.

From the opening few minutes, hushed whispers were heard around the auditorium from people remarking at how small he was and my instant (and internal) reaction was; please stifle your utterly dull truism. The remarkable thing however which is connected to his rather small appearance is that he has a truly towering presence which is felt even during his quiet moments although unsurprisingly, there isn’t too many of them.

This production of Neil Simon’s 1972 play, The Sunshine Boys, is nothing short of comic gold. The in-demand Thea Sharrock directs an excellent cast, led by Devito and Richard Griffiths, two wildly contrasting characters, both physically and psychologically. Together they play a venerable and embittered Vaudeville double act that split up after Griffiths’’ character, Al Lewis, decided it was time to retire from show business. They were once great friends but they became quarrelsome during the end and for the final year of their partnership, did not utter a single word to one another.

The play picks up 10 years since they last uttered a single word to each other and DeVito’s character, Willy Clark, is encouraged to reignite the old partnership for a television special by his agent and nephew.  Al Lewis is keen but the obstinate and immensely proud Clark needs some convincing as he has become quite churlish as time has passed and holds a significant grudge against Lewis.

The true magic from this production occurs when DeVito and Griffiths occupy the stage. DeVito is loud, brash; unafraid to speak his mind while Griffiths, in stark contrast, is insouciant, sophisticated and charming. Their stark dichotomy causes moments of hilarity as they inevitably struggle to avoid bringing up the past.

The play is beautifully written, full of long-running gags and it rarely relents in its humour, although it does have a few reflective moments that illustrate that even in the bitterest feuds amongst long-term companions and friends, there is always that comfort of simply enjoying being in one another’s company.

 

The Sunshine Boys runs at the Savoy Theatre until 28th July

Einstein on the Beach

ImageEinsein on the Beach is a seminal piece of work in the body of late 20th century theatre. Having studied this piece thoroughly during a theatre studies in my undergraduate degree, I must admit that the opportunity to experience this five hour gargantuan work on the opening night of its UK premiere was approached with both excitement and an ounce of trepidation – could this still speak as clearly over 30 years after it first graced the stage in New York.

This Robert Wilson and Philip Glass collaboration first premiered in 1976. The performance artist and contemporary composer chose to elongate the production to such a length in order to overcome the necessity of narrative and instead to fuse the artistic genres into one piece. There has been a nearly 20 year gap since the last performance and while in certain areas such as stage design and language the time lapse shows, overall this piece somehow feels contemporary. Although the pace of this production is at times purposefully uncomfortable, it slowly enraptures the audience (well those who have the tolerance and stamina to remain) as they begin to adjust to the pace that the production sets. 

Einstein on the Beach is comprised of a series of scenes whose meaning is widely meant to be individually interpreted.  Glass describes the work as ‘a non-narrative, artificial theatre in which the function of narrative has shifted completely from telling a story to experiencing a story’. These multitude of scenes are linked by two ‘characters’ who chant random numbers or recite the autistic Christopher Knowles’  text. The scenes began as a series of drawings byWilson – a train scene, a courtroom, archetypal images of Einstein – to which Glass added his score. . The part of Einstein is played by a violinist, while some of the performers are both singers and dancers, with choreography by Lucinda Childs.

Upon this first night, there were a number of technical glitches: Wilson came on to apologise for the fact that we wouldn’t get the full effect.

The dane was brilliantly executed with great zest and determination. The chorus seemed to effortlessly handle Glass’s repetitive, closely-harmonised challenge. The Einstein fiddler’s endless riffs were hypnotic.  The staging of this piece during the opening week of the “Bauhaus: Art as life” exhibition is brilliant. Both the Bauhaus and Wilson succeed in fusing a concept of total space, total theatre, and the possibility that art can be lived. While the Bauhaus elevated design to an artistic status that can be become an everyday reality, Wilson fuses a multitude of art forms – poetry, dance, music, theatre, design – into one breath-taking experience.

Until 13 May at the Barbican Centre – Barbican website.

Making Noise Quietly

ImageRobert Holman’s triptych of stories are conjoined under the umbrella of those in the shadow of war. Rather than affirming human connections or any sense of progress, however, his writing fails to lead one any further down a path of any intellectual understanding or emotive progression that the theme of war tends to easily evoke.  This measured voice ecomes too measuredm so much so that it loses any depth and instead appears one dimensional.   

The first piece, Being Friends, pairs an overtly homosexual artist and a quaker conscientious objector. The setting is a farm in Kent during the second world war. These two characters begin to bare tehmselves both emotionally and physically in an at first intriguing and then far too obvious way, especially in Matthew Tennyson’s florid character of the artist.  This highly sexualised encounter seems unable to surpass the rather limited boundaries that the writing has created.

The second piece, Lost, sees a naval officer visit a mother to inform her of the death of her estranged son during the Falklands war. The staccato effect is an inditement on the writing as well as the acting. It feels forced and there is no arch within the story.

The final piece, which gives the triptych its name, portrays an elderly German woman at her holiday home in Black Forest. She both challenges and attempts to help a violent, junior British soldier and his  young charge. Sara Kestelman is astounding as the elder concentration camp survivor. Her mannerisms so accurately reflect German women of today. Yet somehow, again I feel it is down to Holman’s writing rather than the production, the end is too tidy, there is a lack of rawness in the emotions of the characters, even in the extreme scene of Helene’s uncovering her tattoo from Auschwitz.

Despite such emotive subject matter, Making Noise Quietly felt flat. Holman is fatally over explicit in trying to tease out the connections that war can create between strangers. This triptych was, disappointingly, rather forgettable.

 

The Duchess of Malfi

In the poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’, TS Elliot says of the playwright John Webster, ’Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’. This rather pertinent couplet offers a microcosmic view of what to expect from the work of Webster. He was a man obsessed by the darker faculties of the human condition.  Perhaps his most famous play, The Duchess of Malfi, has been revived at the Old Vic by director Jamie Lloyd, whose most recent output was the brilliant Faith Machine at the Royal Court.

This Jacobean tragedy takes place in the court of Amalfi and is set upon a beautifully ornate backdrop of a labyrinth of intricately patterned walkways- a perfect place for a pernicious intelligencer to go unnoticed. The story centres on the eponymous Duchess, a recent widow, who has two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who want a significant part of her inheritance and are loath to allow her to marry again.

In order to prevent this from happening, Ferdinand hires Bosola, an intelligencer and former servant to the Cardinal, to spy on the Duchess and report back in the event of anything suspicious occurring. The fate of the Duchess takes an ominous turn when she falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, and embarks on a secret relationship with him, trying her utmost to keep her secret away from her psychopathic brothers.

The emotionally demanding role of the Duchess is delicately portrayed by actress Eve Best, most noted for her roles in The Kings Speech and American TV drama, Nurse Jackie. She is but the innocent party in a bevy of wolves that are made manifest by her brothers.

Ferdinand’s descent in to madness is also brilliantly realised by actor Jamie Lloyd with his rodent like features and slick black hair, he gives off the air of a deeply disturbed, conflicted and mercurial man, wildly confused in his feelings for his sister- from the very moment he enters stage and before he opens his mouth, you know already that you are watching one of the main villains of the piece.

This production is truly horrific at times as we see the extent people will go in order to get what they want. The contrasting villains of the calculated Cardinal with the hot blooded and belligerent Ferdinand are brilliantly realised as is the conflicted Bosola- even in his darkest moments, there is always a flicker of humanity and remorse for his actions and this makes him a truly fascinating character.

This production comes recommended although I do warn you, it isn’t for the faint hearted! Webster liked to explore the darkness of humanity and The Duchess of Malfi has it in spades.

Miss Fortune

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Fate, destiny, fortune.  How much can we blame the fates or rather how much responsibility should we accept for our own destinies. 

Miss Fortune is Birtish composer Judith Weir’s first operatic composisition in the last 17 years. She had taken a hiatus to focus her energies on a host of other endeavours including orchestral composition and leading the BBC’s annual composer weekend at the Barbican in 2008. Now she returns to the stage at the Royal Opera House. 

Miss Tina Fortune, Emma Bell, was first shown at the Bregenz Festival in Austria last summer. The storyline is Weir’s re-working of a Sicilian folktale.  Lord and Lady Fortune lose their money in the stock-market crash – sound familiar?  Miss Fortune refuses to continue a sheltered existence and so when her parents flee via helicopter, she chooses to stay behind and make her way in the world. We see her in a sewing sweatshop, at a fast food van, then ironing in a dry cleaners. Each endeavor ends in catastrophe due to the fact that Fate countertenor Andrew Watts, and his hip-hop crew are following close on her heels.  Finally Tina visits this rapscallion Fate and begs him to leave her alone – she then goes on to win the lottery, find her parents, and fall in love with a handsome rich young man who loves his shirts to be well ironed. 

The story line is unbearably weak. Does it say that a woman’s only two ways out of poverty and destitution lie in either winning the lottery or marrying a rich young man? Did a woman composer really think this scenario worthy for the operatic stage?   There is no depth to this surface deep tale – Tina Fortune wanders aimlessly. There is no real suffering from what I can see, only a lack of any real character and a preference to let fate rule her life while she sits and moans about it. She ruins peoples lives, yet wanders along merrily in her own.

The grand stage settings designed by Tom Pye provide spectacle, but little else. Weir’s libretto is tedious in its simplicity and lack of engagement with the full capacity of the English language. The music was charming, but unmemorable. Paul Daniel and the orchestra carried on honorably and gave the torpid notes gusto.

Fate, played by Andrew Watts, I must say, is the downfall of the show. His dancing attempts are actually comical. The lightning colored pajamas that look like a sleeping costume purchased from Primark were ineffectual.  His hip-hop break dancing crew was poorly thought through. It could have been a great addition, but leaving them in street clothes and failing to integrate them into the operatic world in any real way kept them in the periphery as a sideshow.  

www.roh.org.uk

The Summer House @ The Gate Theatre

The Summer House is an engaging and amusing conflation of Nordic mythology and a disastrous stag-do.

The main focus is on the experiences of three men attempting to execute the traditional, or perhaps clichéd, wild stag party weekend away. Scenes of Nordic Gods and honourable Vikings are interwoven between the chaotic moments of the stag party to reflect and consequently punctuate whatever manly issue is being addressed by the trio. It is this acknowledgement of the conundrums surrounding social
status and perceived masculinity that rescues The Summer House from descending into an overtly masculine farce reminiscent of a Nordic ‘Hangover’. These glimmers of substance and amusing juxtapositions of the quandaries of the stags, with portrayals of the equally flawed and insecure Norse Gods make The Summer House astute, as well as chuckle inducing.

Neil Haigh’s performance as troubled Neil, whose summer house the men are staying in, is understated and convincing. Similarly, Matthew Steer’s depiction of the meticulously organised, anxious Best Man Matthew is also thoroughly entertaining and believable, and at points quite subtle. The stag, Will, played by Will Adamsdale, was perhaps the least palatable as his character was almost excessively slapstick. Also, at points Adamsdale’s performance felt like a semi-professional actor (with a contrived booming semi-professional actor voice)playing Will, rather than Will Adamsdale being Will.

The set and use of props were clever – though quite typical of many contemporary plays – with a sparse set design (the stage was on two levels and contained a sofa and three chairs) and a creative use of everyday objects. One of the cleverest uses of the banal was cling film as it is used to depict; cloaks, mountains, water and a hot tub cover…! However, the most inspired element of the stage and prop design was a miniature version of the summerhouse that the men are staying in: literally, a tiny wooden summer house.  The diminutive representation is positioned at the front of the stage and whatever is occurring on the actual stage is echoed, only smaller. It is brilliant. It provides comedic value but also enhances some scenes of the play that are more challenging to convey on a limited set. The use of sound supports the visual aspect of the production almost to the extent of being pedantic, with each splosh of the hot tub, but nevertheless adds authenticity and comedy which are the main merits of the performance.

The script, a collaboration by Adamsdale, Haigh and Steer is realistic and amusing. This is aside of course from the scenes based in Scandinavian history to which alas, my expertise in masculine lexical choices does not extend.

In short, this production is worth watching as a comedy with a self-conscious centre as it rigorously and humorously examines man.

Holly Darling Freeman