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
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
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.
Upon it’s premier at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was opened to riots owing to its perceived derisive and libelous perception of Irish people and was described as a ‘vile and inhuman story told in the vilest language ever listened to in a public forum’ with some authors calling for Synge to be killed. Nowadays, a reaction like that would undoubtedly fill the theatre to capacity with every attendee wanting to see what would cause such a vociferous response.
This play certainly does not pack the socially divisive punch of its 1907 premier but within the beautifully crafted and mellifluous words, therein lies a dark heart.
The production, currently at the Old Vic and directed by John Crowley, centres on the character of Christy Mohan, played by the impish Robert Sheehan who you may well be familiar with if you’ve had the opportunity to see channel 4’s angst-ridden-teen-superhero-drama-cum-comedy Misfits.
Sheehan’s Christy wanders meekly into a local tavern, and tells a tall-tale of murdering his father. This disingenuous story of patricide immediately transforms the cowardly Mohan in to a local celebrity and the object of affection from some of the local women. He takes a particular shine to Pegeen, played with sternness and vigour by Ruth Negga and charms his way, on the basis of his new-found tough reputation, to obtaining a job at the very tavern Pegeen earns her keep as a bar maid.
Christy, to the amusement of the audience, indulges in his new found fame by desperately trying to embody the gallant and murderous playboy by retelling ad nauseum, how the scene of his father’s murder played out, and subsequently impressing a bevy of young women much to the irritation of Pegeen.
Sheehan’s performance as the eponymous playboy is accomplished and at times very funny. He has a great, lank physicality that he uses to comedy effect as he portrays an idealised version of himself. His charm in deceit was worked to hilarious affect as he tries to cling to his fabrication and the characters around him become totally bewitched until a significant plot development seeks to scupper his plans.
This was however, far from being a perfect production. There were occasions, perhaps owing to my ominously early onset of depleted hearing, where I missed tracts of speech which was mainly owing to my ears taking a while to adapt to the rhythm and thickness of the Irish accent. I was also a little disappointed that the play’s dark theme of a young man lying about the murder of his own father and consequently becoming a local pariah and hero was not explored through Christy’s character. Christy undergoes a significant transformation and the climax is really meant to bring home the dramatic transition and embittered maturity of his character. The tone however remained the same; jovial and light, entertaining but, and I am reluctant to say this, largely forgettable.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the performance; the stagecraft was excellent and the language was of a beauty that was at times worthy of comparison with Shakespeare. But this is not a performance that will linger around in the memory for very long, which is saddening given the strength of the material.
The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26th November
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information, visit www.roh.org.uk
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.
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.
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.
Hamlet has attracted some of the biggest names in film and theatre to play the conflicted, surreptitious and eccentric titular protagonist, but as a self-confessed philistine, I reluctantly admit this was the first time I had the pleasure to see Shakespeare’s classic tragedy on stage. I was treated to a Hamlet with such intensity, life, and humour, I could quite contentedly take my seat at the Olivier to see it again and I am sure I will be just as encapsulated.
The play has become ubiquitous on the UK stage in recent years with Jude Law, David Tennant and, most recently, John Simm taking on the role largely to critical acclaim.
Hamlet here is played by Rory Kinnear, who had a small role as a peripheral character in the much lauded political comedy the Thick of It.
A character of Hamlet’s sheer magnitude, presence and complexity was inhabited by an actor who at first seemed quite unassuming and innocuous but grew in to the role with verve. Kinnear’s physicality conflicted with my preconceptions of the character. He has a receding hairline, is rather small and baby faced but my preconceptions were soon cast aside as Kinnear grew exponentially in a note perfect foray into faux madness and clandestine plotting.
There was a child- like quality to his interpretation of the character, his energy and vivacity running concurrently with his petulance and the humorous ways he would conduct himself in order to maintain the façade of madness. This was clearly a man using the pain of his father’s death in order to feed his convincing portrayal of madness like some masochistic method actor. There are occasions that he conveys the essence of an angst ridden teenager behaving in such a way as to incur attention.
Nicholas Hytner’s production brought the play in to a 21st Century context and there is a definite stamp of the modern era within this production. Every word that is uttered within the palace walls is closely monitored by a security presence- their appearance akin to a sinister group of government agents; clad in dark glasses, black suits and ear pieces into which they are always seen speaking suspiciously hushed tones in to. A pertinent and clear device to show the claustrophobic and increasingly paranoid milieu that pervades Hamlet’s world whilst also looking at the same behaviours microcosmically which have a larger significance in an era where the CCTV camera reigns supreme.
The surrounding cast are excellent with Ruth Negga flowing with naivety and vulnerability in her Ophelia and to give the play a further thrust of 20th Century culture, she turns to the modern band X and Y for solace in the throes of a mental breakdown- a ready reminder that this is a Hamlet for the 20th Century. Clare Higgins is also excellent as Gertrude who is at once both strong and clearly absorbed by guilt and fear.
The play was cleverly staged and crafted with simplicity, allowing for it to flow and the audience to be immersed in the tragic events. The entire cast made this a performance I am glad to call the first of and I am sure what will prove to be many, productions of Hamlet- and I am confident that this will remain quite possibly, the best.
Hamlet runs at the Lyttleton theatre from 15th – 23rd April
Cause Celebre, Terence Rattigan’s final play, makes one glad not to be struggling through his rumour obsessed, judgmental portrayal of 1935. This multi-layered play is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury who, with her 18-year-old lover, was accused of murdering her husband and chronicles the subsequent trial. Director Thea Sharrock is joining in the 2011 celebrations of the centenary of Rattigan’s birth, as this Old Vic production is on the heels of her much-lauded and sold-out run of Rattigan’s ‘After the Dance’ at the National.
One quickly becomes immersed in this world of the two lead opposing characters; Anne-Marie Duff skillfully portrays the all too likeable Mrs. Rattigan while Niamh Cusack plays the juror, Edith Davenport, who is to decide the widow’s fate. Duffy gives a stunning, multi-leveled performance while Cusack encourages the audience’s sincere sympathy as she goes through life-altering realisations.
The contrast of the public judgment being more precisely aimed at the age gap between the two illicit lovers rather than the actual crime itself raises pertinent questions in today’s media obsessed frenzy. You can’t help but create links between the ever-more salacious stories that newspapers report concerning the trial coupled with the acerbic reactions characters share regarding the accused couple, and the celebrity-crazed daily “rags” of 2011.
Rattigan’s ability to write for women is unquestionable as he so accurately demonstrates the multi-faceted aspects of female relationships. Here you have two women who no longer fulfill sexual expectations of marriage. One looks to a 17-year-old lover while the other chooses the shame of divorce. In the end one’s strict and strident morality saves the other from her own sexual indiscretions. The prisoner wins over her tight-lipped warden, friend turns upon friend when expectations are undermined, and a number of the characters were all too quick to pass judgment. However the two female leads are disappointing in their frailties and one can’t help but wish for more gumption.
Despite the successful posing of grand moral questions, the play itself has niggling flaws and dialogue that waffles. It felt, at times, that the adept performances were simply too big for the script that at times meandered and lost focus. The numerous tangential story lines of lawyers and offspring seem to contribute little to nothing towards the main plot. The staging was excellent in its subtlety and fluidity. Layers in the set successfully conveyed layers in the story. The haunting appearance at the end as well as a violent tableau on the stage adeptly demonstrated theatre’s unique qualities against which, when executed expertly as it was in Cause Celebre, no horror film could ever compete. Shivers did truly creep up the spine.
My overall reaction at the end was to ask why Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic continually gives us weak women. Medea could perhaps be next?