Mike Bartlett is a promising new playwright. This is his second work to be produced at the National Theatre. The first being Earthquakes in London, and he is only 31 years of age. Impressive. The world premiere of any production is always exciting – there is no precedence other than reputations. It feels like a raw canvas upon which a myriad of projections may or may not appear.
At the beginning we do indeed see a myriad of images, of emotions, of situations blur across the stage. This play comes out strong and sleek. An entire city awakes after a night of a shared nightmare – the insinuations fly like shards of glass. A bad dream, a society gripped by immorality and fear is portrayed through an expertly staged opening. Scene changes are rendered seamless by advanced stage designs that turn in time with the story. These dozens of individual storylines are blended by the large, imposing set. Talented designer Tom Scutt has designed a machine-like cube which rotates opens splits and can appear both solid and opaque due to the perforated material. This really is the star of the show.
The story line begins by unifying a large, diverse cast of characters via a shared mutual dream. A cast full of recognisable thespians is promising. The prime minister, the protestors, a seedy lawyer, and a mixed race family are all disrupted by this terrifying dream – perhaps a reflection of the current state of society, perhaps a shared subconscious or maybe even underlying fear. And here the story begins to falter – trying to compress too many views and subjects simultaneously.
Where the first half of the piece leaves us in jumbled anticipation as to how all of these intricately diverse characters and storylines will conglomerate into a breathing whole, the second half of the play cuts and discards so much of what it has been painstakingly created. Recurrent dream sequences disappear completely to be replaced with an almost comedic dance routine. Characters
suddenly become side-lined, and arguments, which should peak in, merely plateau or worse become hollow. This jumbled plot creates a sense of bombardment – similar to that which our media obsessed world creates on a daily basis. Twitter, facebook, news updates, cultural highlights, reading both right and left leaning papers, that overflow of information and then – suddenly instead of finding enlightenment, one simply feels overwhelmed and undereducated. That is the sense this work conclusively portrays. The noticeable lack of focus and overarching plot leave the audience feeling empty rather than intellectually fulfilled.
In tackling politics, society, religion, and philosophy, 13 raises a number of thought provoking questions. However it fails to do this in any unique or conclusive manner. In the diverse cast of characters, there are a few weak performances, notably Kirsty Bushell and Genevieve O’Reilly who, despite having seen her in three diverse productions, always seems to play the same character. However this was the first public performance so I hope this improves.
In attempting to tackle so much, you clearly feel the playwright is overwhelmed after nearly two hours and suddenly thinks – oh no, I have to wrap all of this up in the last hour and does so in a hurry to the detriment of the work itself. In the final tableau, the audience even laughed at an Alzheimer’s patient suggesting she will take her own life shows how the play fails to hit the mark. If perhaps the science fiction like noise could be removed, the plot cleaned, and the arguments tightened, there is an excellent play hidden within. Unfortunately this draft, despite the imposing rotating cube, fails to reveal it.
13 runs at the National Theatre until the 8th of January 2012.
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 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
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
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.
Harold Pinter’s Betrayal was premiered way back in 1978 at the Lyttleton and the play is just as strong today as it was back then and will not lose any of its punch if it is played out for audiences in 30 years’ time. This is because the central theme of infidelity is something that will always be a pertinent subject and it is becoming all the more ubiquitous in our highly sexualised age.
Harold Pinter understands this very well because this play was inspired by an affair he had during the 60’s with BBC Television presenter Joan Bakewell
Ian Rickson’s production at the Comedy theatre centres around a love affair between Jerry (Douglas Henshall) and his best friend’s wife, Emma (Kristen Scott-Thomas). It opens on a meeting between the two philandering characters in a pub. You learn that their affair has since come to its climax and we are witnessing something of a reunion. The play then gradually moves back in time, allowing for insight into the secrets, deceptions and exertions of passionate love that ultimately lead to the events of the first scene.
Through Pinter’s ingenious reverse chronology of the narrative, dramatic irony is used to powerful effect which, coupled with Pinter’s economical use of dialogue and the subtleties that resonate through each multi-layered interaction, makes for a beautifully pitched piece of theatre, although this production is certainly not perfect.
The cast play the disingenuous and reticent characters very well, convincing in their utter disregard for one another’s feelings. I felt tenderness between Jerry and Emma, the breaks in the dialogue communicating a much greater and purer intent, contradicted of course by their rather insensitive behaviour towards their respective friend and partner. These were two characters that had lives to lose, bound into a commitment through what they believed to be love, forced into secret meetings because their everyday lives were not satisfying enough; their love though not strong enough to break the confines of their prospective marriages.
The mise- en scene was also nicely communicated with a bed being present almost throughout the entire production- a constant reminder of the scene of the betrayal.
I did however struggle with Douglas Henshall’s arrogant and at times dis likeable Jerry. This is clearly a man in the throes of love and passion but that was not truly communicated. I felt there could have been an incandescence to his character that was sadly lacking. Both Scott-Thomas and Ben Miles were strong as the couple emotionally wrenched apart by their selfish actions.
Ultimately this robust production left me satisfied although I feel with a text so rich, so nuanced and so beautifully complex, I wanted more from the performances that felt, at times, a little sterile.
Tosca is one of Puccini’s great masterpieces and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production brings the drama to glorious life.
The setting is the eve of the Battle of Marengo as Napoleon’s army caused disarray throughout the city states of Italy. It is a moving tale of love, personal freedom, ideals, betrayal, and redemption. Tosca (Martina Serafin), Rome’s most beautiful opera singer is in love with a painter, Cavaradossi (Marcello Giordani). Act I, placed in a cramped, split-level chapel with the altar above and the crypt below feels too small for this much drama. However, despite the limited space, the soprano and tenor movingly portray the tensions and placations of two young lovers. But yet, the waters are not calm as political betrayal is underfoot in the form of a dissident escaping from prison and begging Cavaradossi to aid hm in his escape.
Enter the villain. What a vile, putrid individual is the Baron Scarpia (Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo making his Covent Garden debut). He even purports to prefer to have his women on the run from him rather than swooning in romance for him. It is the fear and hatred that wets his lustful appetite. Charming. Uusitalo was so effectively repugnant in his portrayal of this loathing man that he makes the viewer’s skin crawl. While chasing down the escaped political prisoner, he arrests Cavaradossi in the two-fold aim of finding the prisoner and sating his lust for Tosca. To save her lover, Tosca must make the ultimate sacrifice to the hated Baron Scarpia. Serafin’s portrayal of this woman’s inner turmoil was elegant and emotive, her warm voice growing as the anguish in heart at the thought of being betrayed by her beloved god crescendos.
Despite the current cast being a warm up for the power cast to come, their performances were moving. The vocal performances where unusually matched in theatrical capability by this production’s stars. Serafin’s shining star of Tosca evoked great passion, sympathy, and admiration. She gave an accomplished performance. The only critique was that at times she felt encumbered by her overly elaborate costumes. Giordani’s Cavaradossi was a well-rounded, traditionally Italian tenor. Uusitalo’s Scarpia while menacing and imposing in stature, did eventually feel a bit repetitive and caged in by his staging.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting draws Puccini’s precision and passion from this talented orchestra. The elaborate, gothic set designs of Paul Brown are as powerful and dramatic as the plot. The monumental statue, moody settings, and in particular leaving Scarpia’s study nearly bookless were all well-chosen for dramatic effect. I left the production pondering what we are expected to give sacrifice love and how hope, in the face of great adversity, can make believers of us all.