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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.

The Kitchen at The National

The frenetic, chaotic and, at times, balletic goings-on in a busy London- based kitchen is well realised in a revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, currently being staged at the Olivier theatre.
Wesker’s play, originally performed in 1959 at the Royal Court, is directed by Bijan Sheibani and the Olivier’s vast stage is maximised with meticulous detail to the typical bustling late 50’s kitchen aesthetic. The actors utilise the naturalistic milieu with grace and verve as I observed with delight the brilliant stagecraft as even the gas hobs on the ovens were fully functional.

The play is set within one day and has a plethora of characters that are touched upon in small but rich detail. The central focus is on the mercurial Peter, played with Teutonic swagger, by the excellent Tom Brooke, who was last seen in the acclaimed recent production of I Am the Wind at the Young Vic.

Peter is having an illicit affair with Monique, a waitress; and has aspirations to settle down with her, but owing to his belligerent nature, finds himself arguing with her and his colleagues on more than one occasion.

The play is rich in themes and ideas that, although performed more than 50 years ago, still remain salient to this day, which is perhaps the purpose of its well-timed revival. The themes, which include racial tensions, the pursuit of love and how a mechanized and habitual way of being is destructive to your imagination and dreams, are conveyed calculatedly within this busy setting.

The kitchen itself is made up of a whole range of different nationalities which boils over when one character tells Peter and his German compatriot, Hans, to ‘Speak bloody English!’

Peter is ultimately the fulcrum of the production, becoming increasingly more capricious as the play progresses and you learn the source of his discontent. There’s a wonderful scene after the chaotic lunch service, when Peter implores his peers to speak of their dreams and they all seem to struggle to respond, numbed by the cruel machinations of their current occupational predicament and unwillingness to play.

The beautifully choreographed scenes during the first half when lunch is served explore with humour and wonderful theatricality, the rhythmic and maddening chaos that occurs within the kitchen. The boss, Marango, enters during this time and acts as the conductor of his bevy of culinary craftsmen, waitresses and washers as they waltz their way around the kitchen.

The pace of the production does seem to slow in the second half as you join the characters in a moment of peace and reflection after the chaos of lunch.

This production is wonderfully served and at £12 for a ticket, is highly recommended.

The Kitchen at the National Theatre until the 9th November

African Gothic @ The Arcola

African Gothic is certainly not a theatrical work aimed at the faint hearted and those that favour mawkish escapism on the boards in London’s West End. This is a play designed to provoke you, disgust you, leave you with some quite evocative images burnt into your retinas and to violently stimulate your amygdala. If disturbing and challenging theatre is your shtick, then this is the play for you.

This multi award winning play was originally penned in 1985 by South African playwright Reza de Wet and this particular production was brought to the stage by a fascinating new theatre company entitled the Barebones Project, which comprises of a group of experiences actors, artists and musicians. Their objective brings forth echoes of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre in that they want to create a stripped down and provocative theatrical experience that explores ‘the barriers that interfere with an actor’s ability to be present in his/ her fullness of being; our anxieties, artifice and emotional duplicity.’

This is the company’s first production and the subject matter is at times incredibly harrowing and, as an audience member, you are truly provoked and thoughts of the play linger around for days after- they did for me anyway!

African Gothic is set during the apartheid in South Africa and tells the story of the childlike and feral Frikkie and Sussie, a brother and sister who live in a barren wasteland, ostracised from any kind of human contact. The two central characters have an incestuous relationship, content in their own bubble of squalor and degradation.  The other inhabitant of their shack is the servant, a taciturn and yet imperious presence, played by Naomi Wirthner.

The play centres on a visitor who delivers Frikkie and Sussie a message from a, recently deceased, family member. He is appalled by the conditions he is met with and the eccentricities of the brother and sister.

The Arcola was a perfect setting for this play as the audience are sat close enough to smell the stale sweat that lingers in the air and feel the ominous sense of foreboding that permeates the performance. The histrionic and disturbed Sussie is played terrifyingly well by Jane Gwilliams as she explicitly communicates the acts of a woman who is at times animalistic and sexually unrestrained and yet, to humorous affect, attempts at times to be vaguely civilised to impress her guest by speaking in a posh English accent.  Gary Wright’s Frikkie is the strongest performance though as his emotional complexities are given space to be explored.  There is a sense of decency within him although he is unfortunately bound by the misfortune of the circumstances of his life’s disturbing machinations.

The play is pertinent in lieu of the recent riots that have spread across England in its exploration of the mishandling of youth. In Frikkie and Sussie, you have two characters brought up unabashed, untamed and raw. They have defined their own brand of morality and have created their own world for which anyone who threatens it, will be punished in the most abominable way imaginable.

A  terrific play but certainly not to everyone’s tastes.

Tosca, Teatro Real review

Tosca returns to Madrid’s Teatro Real to conclude the theatre’s season in the form of director Nuria Espert’s 2004 production.

Tosca is one of Puccini’s three grand masterpieces along Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. Puccini’s crowd-pleasing operas have been labeled as too conventional by some, however I find the tonal orchestration and soaring melodies to be emotive and expressively beautiful.

The story of Tosca revolves around the performer’s desperate love for a revolutionary artist.  The opera begins within the setting of the church Santa Maria della Valle where her lover, Cavaradossi, is painting a portrait. Tosca is jealous of the woman painted in her lover’s portrait. Unlike this year’s ROH production in London, this set is open and soaring. There is a large cast wandering in and out of the cathedral throughout the first act. Candles are slowly lit; nuns pass through on their way to prayer, laymen on their way to confession. It is a very effective scene before us, which is set. The beautiful chorus in Act I is vibrant and makes the air buzz with devotional harmony.

Act II presents Baritone Lado Ataneli’s Scarpia as a bishop rather than a police chief. He performs well using all the delicate cunning and deceitful power that this villain requires. Tosca’s conclusion of the murder by splashing wine an image of Christ on the crucifix was potent and appropriate. Soprano Violeta Urmana convincingly conveys her dismay and disenchantment with the religion that before that harrowing moment had been her lifelong companion and guide. She plays a strong woman who one could easily believe would attack before being attacked. The entire scene is extremely well staged and makes good use of the vast space that is Scarpia’s private room.

Cavaradossi’s “mock” execution by firing squad is brilliantly set against a stone wall, almost as if his blood were to become the paint of a work of art. Marco Berti brings life to this somewhat one-dimensional character and it takes a great personality to stand up on stage next to such a bold Soprano as Urmana. As the prisoners march in at the opening, children attempt to give the men water. A touching moment before the heart rendering execution and suicide.

I was surprised to hear booing among the audience during the final applause. But this is evidence of a much more open and conversive critique of the opera that occurs in Italy and Spain. Just imagine an American audience, rather than jumping to their feet tat the first sign of a falling curtain, instead remaining seated and vocally criticizing. Never!

Having attended both Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi and Puccini’s Tosca in one week provided a well-rounded viewpoint of Mortier’s vast capabilities with this opera company. He has amply demonstrated that Teatro Real can both astound with a fresh contemporary piece as well as hit the mark with the crowd-pleasing classics.

Until July 28

www.teatro-real.com

The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets @ The Holt Festival, Norfolk

I met this production with a degree of innocence and a sense of stepping into the unknown. I conducted a modicum of research on 1927 and was met with a plethora of positive reviews concerning their first, award winning production, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

This is only their second production since the company’s inception in ’05 and their brand of theatre has been met with comparisons to the early work of Tim Burton; entwining cabaret, silent movie, animation and music hall in to a maelstrom of mordant, sardonic performance. This production far exceeded my expectations, and more than lived up to its comparisons to Burton’s work.

The play is a beautifully crafted tale set within a dark dystopia and focuses on its melancholic, malcontent inhabitants in an environment characterised by misery, disease and crime. The actors embody a series of characters, aided by animation that brings this dark desolate world to the stage. The performers flawlessly interact with the animation to hilarious effect and this dark fairytale left me desiring more.

The tale focuses on the rebellious Zelda, the daughter of a junk shop owner who is surprised by her daughter’s attitude because when she was her age, she was only concerned with ‘contracting herpes’. Zelda wants what the seemingly more privileged have and instigates a rebellion, leading an army of children to take over the more affluent parts of town. This leads to a reaction from the mayor of the town to take direct action against the so-called riff-raff by insidiously luring them with sweets that ultimately pacify their ebullient behaviour, thus depriving them of their innocence and condoning them to a life of misery, characterised by their surroundings.

It is the central character of the Caretaker, who I feel stole the performance. Visually, he reminded me of Edward Scissorhands (minus the scissors); pale faced, forlorn and desperate to escape the ominous surroundings but destined to remain in place which ultimately defined him. His delivery was note perfect and he brought laughter every time he was on stage.

If you have the opportunity to see this wonderful performance then make every effort to obtain a ticket. My sole quibble was the performance was not long enough!

Saint François d’Assise review

Despite the sweltering summer heat in Madrid, a prestigious crowd gathered to see the opening performance of Massiaen’s Saint François d’Assise. It has been touted as one of the most significant cultural events of 2011. Queen Sofia of Spain, the Minister of Culture, the city’s archbishop, the mayor, along with a crowd of others on the list of Madrid’s “who’s who”.  This eminent audience who flocked to the edge of the city at the theatre’s summer residence at the Madrid Arena gave the evening an immediate sense of gravitas.

This sporting arena does not suit opera. The silver bleachers, despite being covered in black padding, are still bleachers. It felt strange to have ¾ of the audience (what would normally be in the round) empty. And table cloths were placed over the areas where normally beer and other spectator sport food is served.

Massiaen’s only opera premiered in Paris 1983, so is relatively contemporary in operatic terms. The gargantuan work, running nearly 6 hours in total, is a well-known favourite of Teatro Real’s Belgian Artistic Director, Gerard Mortier.  The celebrated and renowned director has included the piece in every programme for which he has been in charge.

This production was originally meant to be presented at New York City’s Armory during which time Mr. Mortier was meant to be the director of the new York Opera, however after a lack of fundraising and therefore funds, he chose to settle his artistic perch in Madrid instead. As a director, Mortier takes risks and pushes the boundaries. He is a gift to the operatic stages of our time.

This oratorio based opera consists of 8 scenes  from the saint’s life.  The piece is enormous: 6 hours in length, an orchestra of over 120 musicians, an enormous percussion section by operatic standards, and a chorus of 150 voices. It is truly an opera of operatic proportions.  While appreciating the skill and musicianship of the composition, the work is repetitive and at times obvious. In particular, the repeated thee of the same melody playing before a character sings becomes rather dull. Messiaen also lacks the dramatic undertone which so often spurs opera along their arching plot.

One cannot help but ponder how a crafty and well-thought cut could enhance this lengthy and at times tiresome experience. Unless of course the aim as an operatic “Einstein on the Beach”?

The stage was mostly encumbered by Emilia and Ilya Kabakov’s 22 tonne dome decorated with stained glass and tilted onto its side. It is a gargantuan, imposing piece. Although it fills this arena space, it feels static and at times irrelevant.  The shifting colours felt arbitrary. The performers were confined to a narrow metal walkway that surrounded  the musicians.

The orchestra was led by the Messiaen-specialist Sylvain Cambreling. This is an extremely complicated score and, as many contemporary pieces are, difficult to follow. Cambreling led with clear direction and the necessary confidence to convincingly perform such a challenging piece. The SWR Baden-Baden – Freiburg Symphony Orchestra did well to fill the huge arena and to accommodate such an imposing percussion section.

Marco-Buhrmester gave a magnificent performance as Saint Francois, however the length of the piece would be trying for any performer. It lacked focus. Camilla Tilling, the only female in this cast, was an angel with an ethereal voice who emerged from the cast iron bleachers. Her voice pierced the space and kept the audience mesmerized.

However the plot felt thin. To keep an audience’s rapt attention for such an extended time. Messiaen failed to provide enough texture and richness to this piece in order to warrant the required devotion.  And it showed. Yet despite the audience noticeably diminishing in size after each intermission, the crowd that remained upon the final curtain call was sizeable and enthusiastic.

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

Galà di Danza review

Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s summer season is well under way.  Every summer the Florence based classical music organisation presents performances in the square outside of Palazzo Vechio, Piazza della Signoria.

This “Gala of Dance” comprised of a variety of musical pieces performed by the company’s ballet dancers. From Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream to contemporary works composed by Yo Yo Ma, there was a great variety of pieces performed. Unfortunately the choreography was substandard and repetitive. Why have dancers laying on the floor when 95% of the audience would be unable to see them. The contemporary dance choreography to Yo Yo Ma’s music was frankly boring. It entailed a dancer who seemed like she had never touched a sword before in her life trying to convince the audience that she was in fact so capable with the weapon that she could easily dance with it in hand. The addition of an east Asian inspired robe did nothing to aid the referencing.  A group rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake bordered on the edge of a school recital-like performance with all of the dancers in white lycra body suits dancing over and under one another’s linked arms.

It would also have been preferable to have the accompanying music performed live, perhaps by Florence’s youth orchestra, rather than recorded music. It would have added to the outdoor atmosphere and increased the vibrancy of the performance.

Despite the criticisms, it is wonderful to offer art to the the general populace for free. A great endeavour in fact. The audience swelled as the time passed, locals and tourists alike. A better setting than than in front of Florence’s ancient buildings and iconic statues I would struggle to imagine. The most enchanting part of the evening was seeing the dancers’ silhouettes outlined over the form of David and on the wall of the symbolic Comune di Firenze building.

www.maggiofiorentino.com

Romeo et Juliette, Gounod Review

Attending an event at Teatro ala Scala in Milan is always a grand event. Tourists and Milanese alike are dressed in their finery. It is as much of a social event as it is an artistic one.  The last performance of Romeo et Juliette (1867)  was just such a night.

This is not a commonly produced piece by French composer Gounod, in fact it has been absent from La Scala since its last staging in 1934. The production, directed by the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher, had been a success the Salzburg Summer Festival in 2008 with Netrebko and Villayon in the leads.  This staging brings together two glamorous stars Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo.  The La Scala opera was under the baton of young maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was recently named the eighth Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the American “big five” orchestras, to start the 2012-2013 season.

Upon entering the theatre, the curtain is already raised, already the line between the dramatics of attending La Scala has already begun to blur with that that is soon to occur on stage.  The actors process out and then, very strangely an in an act that I still have yet to place significance, there is a group rape of the serving made on stage. No research suggests this to be in the work, nor was there ever any returning to the theme again later in the opera. It was most disturbing and extremely unnecessary.

Romeo (Italian Grigolo) is a powerhouse of a tenor at only 28 years of age. The strength and tenacity of his voice are astounding and he excelled within his musical phrasing. He brought Romeo through the impetuousness of youth through to a matured, heartfelt husband. Juliette (Georgian Machaidze), despite her horrific costumes which were both aesthetically and historically ill-chosen, was enchanting. The audience could not take their eyes off of this blossoming girl. She went through the character, moving from the young love-struck child into an anguished woman who gives her life to be with her husband. The death scene was truly moving.

There was a strong supporting cast that provided many comedic moments, particularly Paris. Tybalt (Juan Francisco Gatell) had a demanding stage presence. Mercutio (Braun) was a rapscallion through and through and successfully pulled off his “Ballade de la Reine Mab.  Juliette’s maid Gertrude ( Susane Resmark) was indeed a force to be reckoned with.  Yet the staging in the fight scenes was off. It seemed as if Mercutio died of little more than a paper cut and Tybalt was merely glanced. At this level, such basics need to be spot on.

As always, the La Scala chorus, dressed in exquisite 17th century costumes of Catherine Zuber, the likes of which are rarely seen today, was impeccable. Though the costuming did little to differentiate between the Capulets and Montagues.

Michael Yeargan’s set was uninspiring and remained the same throughout the three hours.  There were moments of beautiful dawn lighting through the windows, but then a green was soon to emanate. I have never seen green light shine from the sun.

Someone would do well to remind the audience that applause is not necessary after each and every song. One would think that an audience of such stature would know better.

The performances were breathtaking, but the set and attention to detail was at times simply not intriguing enough. Gounod’s music, while beautiful, has a tendency to remind you of something else you have heard. It lacks a certain inspiration and originality much like this production.
www.teatroallascala.org

Emperor and Galilean review

The English premiere of what Ibsen considered to be his greatest triumph is not an easy piece to digest. This, his longest play which, like Peer Gynt, was written to be read rather than staged, indeed requires from its audience a theatrical endurance of epic proportions. Emperor and Galilean, like a marathon, feels worthy upon completion. Originally intended to be nine hours, Ben Power judiciously trimmed this gargantuan piece of two parts of five acts down to four acts which together come in just under four hours with a cast of 50.

It is astounding that this ambitious work of Ibsen’s, despite being penned in 1873, has never been performed in the United Kingdom considering his relative success on the capital’s west-end boards, with A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, and Ghosts being particular favorites. The last Ibsen production I saw in London was Ralph Fiennes starring in Brand at the Royal Haymarket in 2003.

The tale the fourth-century AD Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (Andrew Scott), the last of the pagan emperor’s epic rise and tumultuous downfall, is the principle focus of the play. Laid before us is one man’s tortuous search for a philosophical truth and religious identity. Julian, through his tutor Maximus (Ian McDiarmid), questions free will and destiny, politics and religion, the body and spirit. The juxtaposition of human conceits and folly to that of our great endeavors and aspirations in this one work is scintillating. In true Ibsen form, the text provides a wealth of literature, biblical, and historical references that stay with the viewer long after the curtain goes down.

Andrew Scott is truly beginning to make a name for himself. He was recently seen briefly in the BBC’s Sherlock and at the Old Vic in Noel Coward’s Design for Living. Each time I see him onstage, I am ever more convinced of his talent  and impeccable timing. He somehow succinctly conveys the warring need for power and intellectual stimulation in this rather weak minded man. His performance was inspiring. O’Reilly’s character, similar to her performance earlier this year at The Comedy Theatre’s Birdsong, lacked substance. McDiarmid played the manipulative advisor Maximus frighteningly well.

It is due to the great capacities and capabilities that the National’s Olivier provides that this piece truly comes to dazzling light in this theatrical cathedral. Jonathan Kent’s staging effectively segments this monolith of a revolving stage. The death scene Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly), the multiple three levels created on the stage, and the ethereal lighting was breathtaking. In fact, it was the subsequent lack of levels and staging that somewhat disappointed in the second act. The military march through Babylon lacked resonance and Julian’s final death, after such great feats of staging, felt somewhat flat in this dessert between East and West.

There are a number of faults to be pointed out (Evian water bottle, confusing props, some fumbling with lines), but as the night I saw was a very early preview, I assume most of these will be smoothed. The contemporary screen projections with airplanes, the use of fluorescent colours on some of the costumes, and the camouflage on the soldiers all seemed at war with the epic tale being told. Somehow the details did not quite align in harmony. But so great was the tale, so impressive Scott’s performance that all minor criticisms seem of little import in the face of such a monumental production.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk