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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.
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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.

 

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


Love Song

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Love Song – such a whimsical title. It is clear from the second scene of this Frantic Assembly that this is indeed the aim of the author Abi Morgan – to compose a theatrical love song of sorts to unfold upon the stage. 

We start at the end and simultaneously the beginning. Two couples enact this tale of the story of Maggie and Billy, both in its youth and old age; an interesting concept. The stage is covered in autumnal fallen leaves –suggesting that the real emphasis lies in the winter of this relationship, rather than the hoped for spring.  

The young couple (Edward Bennett and Leanne Rowe) move to America to further his dental career. She, after losing the hope of bearing children, finds her self with little to occupy her time and so becomes a librarian. It is a typical tale of 1950’s middle class couples.  There are arguments, money troubles, fidelity issues, conception obstacles, and the inevitable challenges that arise with old age (Sam Cox and Sian Phillips). So here we are, presented with two ends of the spectrum and rather than an array of colours in between, all that I could see was grey.

This tale of the childless couple getting by with just each other has been told before. In order to make this at times extremely touching story fly, the author needed to incorporate depth, personality, passion. Yet none of that comes through in this production. Frantic Assembly focus on movement in their productions and you can see that here, movement plays an important roll in the telling of this story. It is excellently staged and the stories intertwine seamlessly, yet much like the attempted choreographed dance interludes, the telling of this worn out tale is lifeless. Even Maggie’s chosen last moments lacked any conviction. I remained unmoved. 

Many of the choreographed staging moments should have been cut by directors Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett who really should know better. The multi-media back panelling added little to the stagnant set.

By the end of  “Love Song” I had lost interest. There was a distinct lack of substance to these characters.  I longed for texture and depth, the stuff that any good love song is comprised of.  However, this lacklustre love song  was markedly missing the all important verses, in the end being incapable of moving beyond the redundant the chorus.

Lovesong is on until 4 February at the Lyric Hammersmith.  Click here to book tickets or call 0871 221 172


Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter

I was not quite sure what to expect when travelling to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter. This past year I have attended three Pinter productions in London and been extremely moved by the playwright’s accurate portrayal the emotive layers of the human psyche, by his simplistic and direct conveyance of the chaotic through the medium of theatre. Pinter, when done well hums, vibrates through the air and hits a pitch that few others in his field can match. When done poorly, well lets just say you would rather stay at home for the evening.

So on to the stage walked Julian Sands, the British actor who first caught my attention in his portrayal of Liszt in the film “Chopin”. His figure was striking against the black stage as he entered. His cool crisp English accent cut through the still air as he breathed life into the written words of Pinter.

This one man show, which originated earlier this year at the Edinburgh fringe festival, is directed by John Maklovich. It is a piece I wish I could have experienced in rehearsal to witness the interaction between Malkovich and Sands. As it was, I tried to imagine the interplay between the two during parts of the piece. During deliberate pauses or ironic tilts of the head, I could sense Malkovich’s guidance.

It is argued that Pinter may be the greatest UK playwright of the 20th century. Yet in this production it is the poetry and the man that Sands focuses upon. Sands personal admiration and compassion for this stage legend come through in every breath of the performance. He admires both the weaknesses and the strengths of Pinter’s character. Through personal anecdotes, private stories, and reading of the written word, the audience feels as if they are presented with a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Pinter the public figure. His character comes alive through this three dimensional representation which this piece presents.

Pinter’s poem “I know the place. It is true. Everything we do corrects the space between me and you” stands as a corner piece of Pinter’s deceptively simplistic style. Sands recollects how the writer, upon a misreading, suggests that he should read it and that one day he may understand it’s meaning. And it is in this that we find the true essence of Pinter, his words, language, literature will represent different meanings at different stages in each of our lives. His work does not stagnate, but evolves with the reader’s development and understanding.

This production is a moving portrayal of the lesser-known works of Pinter by a talented and well-informed performer. It was a pure joy and intellectual challenge to experience this performance, just as all Pinter, I believe, is meant to be. I left the theatre and went straight to buy the book “Various Voices”. I challenge you not to do the same.


Madama Butterfly review

Alas, I did not manage to get a ticket to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House however I did take advantage of attending the free live screening in Trafalgar Square.

The setting was beautiful as the weather remained uncharacteristically dry and the sun trickled down, igniting Nelson’s column. The turnout was unprecedented as there was a reported 8000 people in attendance with a further 2000 sitting on the periphery, trying to catch a glimpse of this wonderful production of Puccinni’s classic. People were even turned away which has provoked a reaction that perhaps a new venue should be sought flor next year’s event. Picnics and bottles of wine were ubiquitous as the entire audience remained meditative and transfixed as we all witnessed the tragedy that befell the titular protagonist; and I am pleased to say, I did not hear one mobile phone ring.

Once the performance commenced, I was initially struck at the simplicity of the set with the creative team deciding to maximise the space; the only significant detail being the shoji screens placed at the back of the stage, which allowed for silhouettes to be cast upon them- the detail of which is cleverly utilised, particularly when Pinkerton returns from his 3 year hiatus.

The story revolves around BF Pinkerton, an American soldier stationed in Nagasaki, who decides he wants to marry a geisha. He is brash, arrogant, emotionally shallow and ultimately ignorant to Japanese culture, much to the dismay of his friend, Sharpless, who warns him of the differing attitudes prominent within Japanese culture. Pinkerton rejects this caveat and marries Cio-cio-san (Butterfly) but doesn’t take the vow seriously, confused between infatuation and love. He also feels that his future lies with an American woman. Butterfly however does take the marriage seriously, renouncing her religion and converting to Christianity which precipitates the abandonment of her family as a consequence. Pinkerton returns to America, leaving Butterfly to raise their son. After 3 years, Pinkerton returns with his American wife and this is met with great tragedy.

Madam Butterfly was played by Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, remarkably a last minute stand-in. It was truly an astonishing performance by Opolais, communicating her obstinate love and later the heart-breaking anguish after her greatest fear becomes a reality. The supporting cast were excellent but it was Opolais who truly stole the show, dominating the stage with a delicacy and unbridled passion.

The opportunity to see this remarkable piece of art for free, and to share it with 8000 people, is an experience that will remain with me forever and makes me appreciative of those endeavouring to spread our incandescent cultural milieu further afield.

Madam Butterfly runs for two more performances: 8-15 July

Cinderella will be shown in Trafalgar Square on 13 July