Theatre/Opera/Dance reviews and news

Archive for May, 2011

Tender Napalm review

Just last week Lyn Gardner, the Guardian’s famed and feared theatre critic asked “why today’s critics no longer write about acting, or at least not with any of the zest and descriptive power of their predecessors….The lack of attention paid to acting is a loss.”

Upon viewing, Tender Napalm seemed the perfect piece upon which to exorcise this critique of the critics. Witnessing Vinette Robinson and Jack Gordon’s approach these high-context characters felt as if there were needless excesses and a lack of the essentials. Is love really based on winning verbal duels? Their performances failed to move me towards anywhere meaningful other than the door.

This world premiere of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm at the Southwark Playhouse marks the first new play in three years from the award-winning playwright. This uninterrupted 80 minute piece begins with Man and Woman entering in a flurry of high energy motion and then settling into chairs at opposite ends of the stage. “Your mouth … it’s such a wet thing. I could squeeze a bullet between those lips.” There they both physically and metaphorically remain, at opposite ends of the spectrum, springing back and forth between sexual confrontation and a distant aloofness all via a seemingly never ending linguistic duel.

In the game of competing egos, both Man and Woman use super-heroes from comics, sci-fi ideas, ancient legends and fairy tales as places in which to explore the language of love and to contest rival interpretations of past events. The monologue heavy dialogue follows the basic principle of improvisation – never refuse an idea or image – and so take each other’s suggestions, however interruptive. Images of snakes, serpents, unicorns, monkeys, kings, queens and blood proliferate. There are suggestions of a violent world beyond our immediate experience, Ridley’s script is in constant flux as it examines the multiplicity of this thing we call love. Delving into these minds, I was struck instead by the lack of inventiveness. If this is indeed a dream world, then why not make us dream dizzying heights and catastrophic lows, rather than this flat line comic strip. They rarely venture into this fantasy world together as lover’s so often do, but instead remain in continual combat.

Gordon’s Man while dynamic, lacks emotional depth, his extensive physical work feels messy – riding a unicorn with the same movements upon which he directs a space ship. Robinson’s Woman lacks basic female qualities that could have shifted this piece into a realm of real depth. She maintains the same caustic lack of sympathy of any hint of warmth that she displayed as the Sergeant in the BBC’s recent Sherlock Holmes. Robinson’s eagerness to coldly contradict Gordon’s fiery, fist pumping Man without any tangible or remorse render her character one-dimensional.

Does an exploration of sexual love really need to involve pushing bullets and grenades into one’s orifices? It appears a rather self-destructive relationship that Ridley has created. This couple’s lack of compassion led me to stop caring. Rather dance around the issue, why not get to the heart of the matter. What good is story telling if it fails to move, to inspire, to educate, to enrapture the audience? I very much saw the Napalm, but where was any sincere Tenderness? Despite the lack of a conclusion, I left the theatre, glad that the production itself had concluded.

The Damnation of Faust review

Most opera aficionados would not think Terry Gilliam’s name to be synonymous with the form and yet his first foray in opera depicts the director, made famous for directing film and providing the animation in Monty Pythons Flying Circus, making a seamless transition.

He decided to adapt Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and made the daring decision to set it during the emergence of the Nazi party in Germany.

Before the curtains are raised, Mephisto or the more commonly used Satan enters with his shadowy minions and takes his seat to the side of the stage where he awaits the moment to pounce on the increasingly vulnerable Faust. His minions cavort around the stage like devilish ballerinas, moving around with their twisted and contorted limbs. This immediately sets the precedent that the devil will be an active puppeteer and the insidious cause of the tragedy that is to follow.

For those who don’t know the narrative, it tells the tale of Faust, a man disenchanted with his life and contemplating suicide. He is visited by Mephisto who lures him into a world of dangerous temptation by offering him fulfillment of his innermost desires to which the parochial Faust excitedly accepts. His journey then becomes increasingly more fraught as Mephisto reduces Faust to a mere puppet, casting him into increasingly ominous scenarios where swastikas are ubiquitous and the pernicious far-right ideology is beginning to take effect.

Gilliam is perhaps best known for his capacity to harness his tremendous imagination and create a sumptuous feast of visual stimulation with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys being two particularly apt examples. He has not let his reputation down where each backdrop is rich in detail and bustling with activity. He also integrates the use of projections, tragically illustrating soldiers in combat being a particularly poignant example.

Mephisto is masterfully played by Christopher Purves; dressed immaculately, oozing charm and insouciance with a suitably powerful voice, seducing all those who cross his path. Pater Hoare’s Faust is also brilliantly played, with a shock of hair, looking every inch the capricious eccentric he purports to be.

I liked the pace of the piece where the audience are gradually reminded of the ominous milieu we are observing and the evil that is in motion. The growing evil however is slowly unravelled as Mephisto manipulates each situation to bring Faust closer and closer to relinquishing his soul. The Nazi ideology turns into acts of extreme and violent prejudice as the benign glow of the early scenes are replaced by the malevolent dark as a feeling of foreboding and an inevitability of tragedy begins to emerge.

This was truly a wonderful piece of opera from a director who might just have found his calling.

Reykjavik Review

Have you ever longed to see inside someone’s head, understand the intimate mechanics? See things literally from their point of view? Sham’s production of Reykjavik so pushes and pulls one’s preconceived conceptual understanding as to the limits of theatre that the viewer feels as if they have indeed entered into the protagonist’s fragmented memory.

This multi-sensory experience immerses you into a man’s mind. The audience of no more than 25 is instructed to climb into forensic suits upon arrival at the Albany Theatre.   This effectively removes the audience members’ individuality to a certain extent; putting the audience into costumes begins what is to become a continuous blur throughout the piece of the traditionally clear boundary between audience and performer. The audience becomes part of the performance.

Reykjavik, written and performed by Jonathan Young, along with supporting cast Sinikka Kyllonen and Steve Loader, leads the audience, willing or not, through the remembered experience of a man’s travels to the city in the wake of a Parisian love affair.  This piece raises a number of questions as to the authenticity of memories and events long past. Much as the ice of the city is constantly in shift, so is “Y”’s, as the protagonist is known, own reflective self-perception.  Foreign language, land, and love are all alienating factors. The story is told in a patchwork way in and around the audience in a sparse, representational setting. A blank space becomes a place of inventiveness and creativity. An umbrella, sink, earphones, chairs, and even dividers all take on new meaning in this clinically sparse space.  The constant movement of objects, audience, locations, emotions, psychological states creates an over arch of projection that ties the tale together.

There was an effective balance between the planned and impromptu creativity that arises from involving an audience to this extent. Yet the audience interaction is never taken to such a level that it would change the actual course of the plot, it feels as if you stand upon the precipice without jumping over and at times you want to push the protagonist “Y” over the edge as he always seems to be holding back. Perhaps from exposing too much of himself to this unpredictable audience? Yet Young’s exceptional performance is all-encompassing. He utilizes all shades of the emotional spectrum and takes the viewer with him.

The final sequence leaves the audience questioning their own memories and generational patterns. By going so deep into his conscious, Young forces the viewer to introspectively ask similar questions of themselves. Viewing/participating in Reykjavik is a rewarding experience. Although flawed, it is a piece that makes you not only question what defines theatre and the boundaries of performing arts, but also leaves you examining your own memory recall.

Tsar’s Bride review

Love, betrayal, jealousy, poison and murder – dramatic, operatic elements drive the plot in Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautifully composed Tsar’s Bride.  The work dating from 1899 is a fixed opera in the Russian repertoire, however it is rarely performed here in the UK. In fact this is its premiere at the Royal Opera House.  Another first for this performance is British director Paul Curran at the ROH.

It was a delight to hear an operatic work by Rimsky-Korsakov who is much better known for his composition of classical music rather than opera. The work, upon first hearing, is enchanting. In fact, he has composed 15 operas in total.

Kevin Knight’s lavish designs are exquisite – it is as if modern, new-money rich Russia has been transported to Covent Garden. From a pool terrace to the interior of the palace – the detail and realistic portrayal of the sets are one of the true strengths of this production. I was captivated.

The four-act tragedy, based on factual occurrences surrounding the death of Ivan Vasilvevich IV’s wife, follows a young Marfa, in love with her childhood love Likov. The Tsar’s choosing her, out of a line-up of 2,000 women, to be his wife results in disaster. The ever popular Marfa is also lusted after by the nasty Gryaznoy. The plot follows a slow, but steady growing tension that leads up to the final scene of Marfa losing her sanity. The performances, a number of the singers authentically Russian, were both tender and strong in equal measures.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s fold-inspired orchestral score soars dramatically through the opera house under the expert direction of Mark Elder. The harp is well utilized in an ornate, decorative fashion. The softness of the notes was at sharp contrast with the anguish on stage. The atmosphere evoked was decisive and effective.

The parallels between the 16th century oppressive rule of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible and today’s Russian mafia are clearly drawn.  It very much feels a police state as the Tsar is sends his ruffian body guards dressed in all black and designer sunglasses to handle all affairs. There is an element of vulgarity in the nouveau riche extravagance displayed in the outer circle of the social climbing court, today’s oligarchs.  This production makes direct comments about todays chauvinistic, wealth obsessed aspect of Russian society. It is also a clear critique on actions being carried out in the name of the Tsar, in the name of the state, for the people.

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Pina review

Pina has been dubbed the first ever 3D art house film and in a climate where there seems to be a plethora of insipid 3D popcorn flicks churned out by the Hollywood machine, this is a breath of fresh air and is truly a magnificent celebration of a legend in modern dance, presented in a form that truly does her work justice.

The movie was originally conceived way back in the 80’s where the director, Wim Wenders saw Pina Bausch’s Café Muller. After building a close relationship with her, Wenders felt her work could be further explored through film. This idea however took a rather lengthy hiatus of more than 20 years as Wenders felt the technology had not yet reached a stage where her work could be fully appreciated.

The eureka moment occurred when Wenders saw U2:3D in Cannes and finally felt that technology had caught up with their vision.

Wenders is a Palme D’or winning director and has been responsible such critically acclaimed documentaries as The Buena Vista Social Club and The Soul of a Man. This was a man clearly qualified in bringing such an ambitious project to fruition.

The film suffered a significant setback just before production was to begin when tragically, Pina Bausch died of cancer. Wenders abandoned the project as a result but thankfully it was then resurrected after a campaign by Pina’s family, the dancers and staff.

The film follows live footage of some of Pina’s most famous works including Café Muller and Sacre de printemps as well as following members of the group, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, around the Germanic town of Wuppertal where they perform routines inspired by the ethos of Bausch. They also talk of the impact she had on their lives, illustrating through pithy anecdotes, the lasting impression she has left forged on them. The character of Bausch is drawn vividly in the mind of the audience through these anecdotes; the film does not take a biographical look at her life, which I feel was the correct decision because she is ultimately defined by her work and it is maintained through the experiences she shared with others.

Throughout, I was completely transfixed by the sheer beauty of the dancing and was struck at how liberated it was and unlike anything I had ever seen before. The movements were a pure manifestation of feeling, made all the more powerful by the training they had received under Bausch’s tutorship. When I watch the dancers move, at times I felt I was watching something almost primordial, devoid of thought and it conveyed richness in its purity of action.

Interestingly, a popular technique used by Pina Bausch to motivate her dancers was the method of questioning. She would pose a question to her dancers such as, ‘What would you do with a corpse?’ or ‘Do something you are ashamed of?’ and ask them to explore that question using improvised dance. The dance would therefore have to come from the quiet, inexplicable parts of the psyche and there really is sense of this when you are watching the dancers perform. Incidentally, Wenders also chose to use this technique during the making of the film.

The footage of the dancers performing around Wuppertal offer carefully chosen landscapes in order to magnify the 3D effect with an interesting mix of the urban and industrial contrasted with the surrounding natural environment played out to an eclectic soundtrack that really enriched the visuals, and something I am very keen to add to my collection.

Overall I was at times overawed by this visually opulent and cerebral 3D celebration of the work of a true genius.

Reading of King Jame’s Bible, The Globe Theatre

Performance Reviewed 25th April 2011

The prospect of this performance that in total was to take 69 hours, the Globe’s recitation of the King Jame’s Bible on its 400th anniversary, had me excited months in advance. I attended the performance of Act 2 to Corinthians. The sun was shining, the birds a twitter, and so I planted my bum onto the wooden seat, cushion free. If the apostles did not need cushions, then neither did I!

I had arrived with the great hope of learning more about this great piece of literature. An actor emerged, I was at first mesmerized by the fact that he had successfully memorized what seemed to be ten minutes of biblical text, then I noticed his ear piece. Still I was puzzled. However the next actress out revealed all. Her ear piece was so loud that I could clearly hear the woman’s voice reciting the text to her before she said it aloud. And so it went. Four actors taking turns in the recitation of this infamous text; an older man and woman, a younger set of the same mixed gender. The recitation was good and clear, yet because of the monotony of it, mistakes or stumbles were quickly noted. Something which I would rather be so entranced in the performance that I would not even notice.

Alas, despite my good intentions, the recitation was somewhat numbing. It was too easy to be distracted and my ears only picked up certain words like “burning bush” and “eunuch” before once again loosing the train of speech.

I only stayed for one hour when I had originally hoped to make it to four. Still I think it is an excellent undertaking, particularly for those zealous followers who brought their bibles with which to follow along.

Review of Fidelio by Beethoven @ Royal Opera House

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is a complex, politically entwined affair. Originally set during the French Revolution, The Royal Opera House’s production seemed to lack roots as well as a specific place and location. The stage, juxtaposed with a prison on one side and homes and offices on the other never really specified the setting. Ample ammunition in the form of guns never realises a purpose.

Rather than the actions, one feels more bogged down by the bureaucracy of the details.  The singers staging felt forced, although the vocal performances were outstanding.  Nina Stemme as Leonore nearly had me convinced that she was a man. Elizabeth Watts held the stage well and effectively dominated the mostly male cast. The stage only really came alive for me when the prisoners were briefly released, but even this scene in its staging felt lethargic and appeared as if it was only a mere afterthought.

Real drama emerges once the setting moves below into the deep dark dungeons where Endrik Wottrich’s Florestan is being held as a political prisoner. Yet still here the staging and political furor feels forced.

The interpretation of this performance brought apposite questions to my mind. Why choose this nameless time and town? Why not bring to the forefront today’s multitude of material regarding mistreated prisoners, which would make it all the more pertinent with the latest Guantanamo leaks, or even move it to China to echo Ai Wei Wei’s current plight? Such a passionate play requires a bit more spark before it may catch flame.