CHORALE, A SAM SHEPARD ROADSHOW at the CLF Art Café in Peckham

24 Jun

Director, Simon Usher

Presence Theatre and Actors Touring Company in association with the Belgrade Theatre

©ArnimFriess

Jack Tarlton and John Chancer ©ArnimFriess

First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 20th June 2014.

Sam Shepard, says Gary Grant, professor of theatre at Bucknell University, “is a writer’s writer”.

Nowhere is that more so than in the two pieces of writing I saw that make up part of the Presence Theatre’s Sam Shepard Roadshow. Perhaps that’s why so few have attempted to stage his early play The Holy Ghostly and collaborative poem The War in Heaven.

Recurring themes – Christian, familial – weave through both works. Allusions are literary, recalling Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams, and social, moving in and out of American pop culture.

John Chancer ©ArnimFriess

This is an ambitious endeavour for three actors and a small budget, and they tackle it with energy. There is some brave acting, particularly from Jack Tarlton (although there is something more truthful about John Chancer’s performances). And there is some clever set design in the smoking campfire and moving dead body.

But, assaulted with abstract concepts without a firm narrative structure, the audience is left bewildered. Noting the traditional set and the actors’ traditional opening, spectators prepare for a ‘play’. But what follows is a blend of poetry reading set to music and conventional theatre. There’s a sense that the truth of Shepard’s writing has been lost amidst the costume, scenery and conscious stage acting.

Valerie Gogan, Ben Kritikos & John Chancer ©NinaSologubenko

Valerie Gogan, Ben Kritikos & John Chancer
©NinaSologubenko

Director Simon Usher has broken down the structure of the traditional theatre production by staging two works of different genres as a double bill. But that’s where his experimentalism ends. Truth is not sought outside of the confines of conventional staging, and so the production takes on the self-indulgent and inaccessible air of ‘experimental theatre’ when it is not experimental at all.

Watching, one can’t help but close one’s eyes to imagine the words on the page and how beautiful they must look. It’s quite possible this is how one ought to meet them in the first place.

PUNISHMENT WITHOUT REVENGE, at the Arcola Theatre

26 Jan

BY LOPE DE VEGA, in a new TRANSLATION BY MEREDITH OAKES

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First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 25 January 2014

Tragedy is harder to pull off than comedy. And three plays on rotation over seven months in three different theatres is a feat for one ensemble. But that’s no excuse for a rather tired performance as Part II of the Arcola Theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season at The Arcola Theatre.

El castigo sin venganza (literal translation: Punishment Without Revenge) is one of early seventeenth-century playwright Lope de Vega’s most celebrated works. Pregnant with classical allusions, it tells the story of secret love between son and stepmother, weaving together well-worn themes of incest, honour, morality and retribution. Count Federico, illegitimate son of a lecherous old Duke, falls in love with the well-bred Cassandra brought to be his father’s bride. Discovering the Duke only wed Cassandra as a front to hide his continued debauchery, Federico and his new stepmother give in to their passion. When the Duke returns from war chastened, their tryst unravels.

ImageDirected by Laurence Boswell, long-time promoter of the Spanish Golden Age, this production plays up similarities to Shakespearean plays that preceded it by two or three decades. Meredith Oakes’ translation nods to Macbeth when Ricardo talks of “the milk of human kindness”. And Boswell suffuses his visual landscape with references to Hamlet, Federico bursting onstage halfway through the first act rumpled shirt hanging loosely, hair on end, eyes staring wildly: “I’m not the man I was”. “What…is more insane than I am?” he asks, as his father sends doctors to diagnose him.

But where Hamlet stays predominantly with the eponymous hero, Punishment flits between Federico, Cassandra, the Duke’s niece Aurora and at least one comic subplot. There isn’t enough character development of Federico or Cassandra for the audience to understand their need for each other. And it doesn’t help that the sexual tension between Nick Barber and Frances McNamee is lukewarm, signalled only in their initial advances by a Game of Thrones style exit, McNamee in Barber’s arms like a bride crossing her threshold. All this makes Federico’s self-torture seem like petulant whining; something even the text seems to nod towards: “I may exaggerate beyond all sense and reason…” And so the anticipated bloodletting at the finale strikes an English audience as a watered down version of Shakespeare or Marlowe.

ImageIn Don Gil of the Green Breeches (Part I of the Season), the actors loved their lines, lingering over some of Sean O’Brien’s finer translation. In Punishment, they seemed to resent them, stumbling and grumbling through Meredith Oakes’ work.

That said, there are some standout performances. Frances McNamee as Cassandra embodies turmoil concealed by poise. Her monologue modulates from soft whisper to imperious cry as she captures the tear-smiled mask of a woman covering her true emotions.

Brilliant too are Simon Scardifield and Annie Hemingway as the comic duo of the subpot. Mixing slapstick – as Lucrecia does away with ponderous Batin’s shot of liqueur – with wit – as Batin finds words to describe Federico and Cassandra’s love: “They have taken to each other almost like a mother and son” – they lift the play’s pace.

ImageMark Bailey’s set and costumes are enough to almost make you forget you’re in a less-established venue. Luxurious velvets and starched ruffs left me wondering where the budget had come from. And the actor’s carousel-like use of the double doors at stage rear was an inventive way to flit back and forth between scenes naturally.

But in comparison to Don Gil, Punishment has less artistic value. Whereas de Vega is already well-known to English audiences, Tirso de Molina (Don Gil’s playwright) is a less familiar name and therefore ripe to be served in translation.

This production felt a little too self-indulgent, made for those already in love with plays of the Spanish Golden Age, not made to convert those in a modern English audience who don’t know it.

DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES (Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes), at the Arcola Theatre

19 Jan

BY TIRSO DE MOLINA, IN A NEW TRANSLATION BY SEAN O’BRIEN

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First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 17 January 2014

For a fleeting moment it looked like the feisty female lead might – just might – beat the men at their own game. Revenge wreaked, I pictured this green-garbed girl pouring scorn on the advances of her faithless former lover and exiting stage left pursued by the fashion victims (a study in green) that she created.

Sadly however, although Sean O’Brien updates the words, he doesn’t update the story.  Don Gil of the Green Breeches, one of seventeenth-century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina’s early comedies, is, in the end, a conventional play. The women may appear to lead the action, but none of them end up with what they want: Donna Juana falls back into a relationship with a man who dropped her for a wealthier version; Donna Ines ends up with the unpalatable suitor she spends most of the play avoiding; even Donna Clara can’t get the Don Gil of her dreams.

In this production, both men and women struggle to escape their respective gender roles (Caramanchel sees “hermaphrodites” round every corner), but are ultimately thwarted by Marriage, the ultimate heterosexual convention.

That’s not to say the cast doesn’t have fun blurring the gender lines. A dance sequence between Donna Juana, in masculine dress as Don Gil, is as sexually charged as it is comic – more erotic than Shakespeare’s Viola and Orsino.

ImageFor Don Gil of the Green Breeches is like Twelfth Night on speed. The girl doesn’t just dress up as a boy; she takes the man she wants to snare’s fake name and then pretends to be another girl dressing up as the male character she’s created, while all the other men want to dress up as her – or him – or, well you get the idea. The layers of dramatic irony used to perfection by Shakespeare are doubled and then stripped away, when Elvira’s likeness to Don Gil isn’t just remarked upon, but picked apart unwittingly by Donna Ines.

In a final nod to Twelfth Night, the eponymous green breeches, symbol of Donna Ines’ perfect man, become as absurd as Malvolio’s yellow stockings when character after character enters the stage sporting them.

This new translation of the Spanish is beautiful, lyrical phrases hidden among the deliberate full stops of rhyming couplets. O’Brien brings the text into twenty-first-century English without losing the occasional Spanish turn of phrase, even if a few of the jokes in the first scene fall flat.

ImageThe cast is the strongest thing about this production. Hedydd Dylan’s energy and purpose in her physicality makes her as alluring in drag as she is in her velvet dress. Chris Andrew Mellon’s mellifluous voice turns on a knife edge between silky smarminess and cuttingly nasty asides. These asides, used freely by all the characters, work perfectly in the Arcola’s small space, creating an even more intimate experience for the audience.

There is a danger the performance descends into panto territory: Don Martin as a revamped Spencer Matthews, as good-looking as he is self-obsessed; Donna Ines as the spoilt Queenie from Blackadder II, alternating between scrunched up face and overblown sexual innuendo; Donna Clara’s vast drawn-on beauty spot; and Don Juan’s orange getup complete with frilly garter (another Malvolio throwback). When Donna Juana asks, “But subtle would you not agree?” the audience’s laughter suggests otherwise.

ImageSo too does it feel too easy to camp up Don Juan, the unfavourable suitor and general thorn in the side. Instead of cashing in on the cheap laughs at a fey chap, why not unpick why we still laugh at “girly” men and “manly” girls?

All in all, it would have been nice to see director Mehmet Ergen, founder and artistic director at the Arcola, doing something a bit more radical with this. That is, after all, his forte. But as this is part of the theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season, led by well-known Iberophile Laurence Boswell, perhaps faithfulness to the text won out over originality.

Sir Trevor Nunn’s daughter in her first London play BOMBSHELLS

10 Jan
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Bombshells Listings Poster

One day it may be possible to introduce Ellie Nunn without mentioning her parents (theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn and actress Imogen Stubbs). But when a 22-year-old fresh from Cambridge is starring in a one-woman show in the West End (albeit in an off-West End studio theatre), you’ve got to ask how she managed it.

The answer (hush you cynics) is under her own steam – or rather the combined steam of her and the production company Dippermouth, set up by friends of hers at university. They filled out the necessary application forms like everyone else and were selected by the Jermyn Street Theatre’s relatively new Artistic Director Anthony Biggs to put on Bombshells.

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Ellie Nunn as Meryl

The result is a two-hour monologue in which Nunn presents six vignettes of six different women, in varying stages of life.

But don’t be fooled, this isn’t one long speech. Far from it, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith creates six dynamic conversations – some between actor and audience, others between actor and half-imagined other characters – to the point where you almost forget you’re watching a single-hander. The play opens with a day in the life of Meryl, a frantic mother with a severe inferiority complex. The scene changes to a lecture hall at the North Hetherton Cactus and Succulent League, where a timid Tiggy Entwhistle painfully stumbles through a lecture extolling the virtues of the faithful cactus plant in contrast with her unfaithful lover Harry. Next up it’s Mary O’Donnell, the bumptious leotard-clad Irish schoolgirl convinced the school talent show prize is hers. After the interval there’s Theresa the Essex bride with last-minute reservations, then widow Winsome fresh from a sexual reawakening and who neatly mentions the final character, Zoe Struthers, a washed-up diva attempting a booze-addled comeback.

Nunn herself admits that, at her age, she has not experienced most of the things the women she is playing have. But this doesn’t harm her performance, which is remarkable for its maturity. The depth of her voice, which is glorious, helps in this. And there’s something of a young Kate Winslet in her facial expressions, particularly the false grimace-smile she uses to play Meryl and Winsome’s serene gaze.

Physically, Nunn is a joy to watch. Apart from a few erroneous t-shirt tugs and hair tucking, she moves with purpose and uses her body almost as another prop. The costume changes which, as in the original 2001 production, occur onstage, become part of the play as Nunn casts clothes from the rack and indelicately yanks tights up to her armpits. Her steely application of black eyeliner whiskers without a mirror while talking earnestly to the audience as Mary is a wonderfully comic moment, as are the melodramatic hand and head thrusts of diva Zoe.

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Ellie Nunn as Mary

Bombshells was originally written for Caroline O’Connor, the musical actress and dancer. Part of its originality as a monologue is in the dancing and singing required to play two of the characters. Nunn pulls these off spectacularly, her teenage dance routine thinly veiling a natural ability to move to music, and her final singing performance capturing the essence of a diva.

If anything lets down the show, it’s the lack of any meaning behind the six female vignettes we’re presented with. This was a criticism levelled at Murray-Smith’s work when it first came out in 2001, and Germaine Greer even said of the playwright (referring to a later play) that she “holds feminism in contempt”. It is a shame this performance doesn’t find something to pique the audience once the auditorium’s laughter has faded.

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Ellie Nunn as Meryl

Where this production does stamp its identity is in the addiction of a seventh character to the proceedings: that of the actor herself. Several times during the play Nunn talks directly to the audience not in character. Nunn says she breaks the fourth wall intentionally to highlight that there is just one woman behind all six characters working frantically to keep the show moving. But as an audience member it feels uncomfortable. With the costume changes already occurring onstage, there is no need to bring more attention to play’s artifice, and one can’t help feeling Nunn just isn’t well-prepared enough to improvise in character.

Nunn insists that she would hate for people to see her choice of play as a deliberate ploy to showcase her own talents. If that’s her modesty talking, it’s time to shrug it off as her performance is something to be proud of.

First published in The British Theatre Guide on 9th January 2014

You’ve heard of Silent Disco. Prepare for Silent Opera. In a furniture store.

25 Oct
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Charles Dance as Figaro

First published in The British Theatre Guide

“We’re closed madam.”

I’m stopped by an overzealous shop attendant swooping over to hurry me out of the seemingly empty furniture store on Tottenham Court Road.  I check I’m not in Habitat by accident.

“I’m here for the opera,” I say hesitantly.  The words have an ‘open sesame’ effect and suddenly the attendant is all smiles.

“Right this way, straight to the back of the room and turn left.  Enjoy the show.”

I find myself in Heal’s ‘Spa’, surrounded by handmade soaps, receptacles made from blown glass and – tonight only – full champagne flutes.  My coat is taken and I’m handed a programme and a set of headphones.  The volume controls are explained to me and I’m instructed to enjoy the bubbles in this room until the performance starts.  Still trying to make sense of the proceedings, I negotiate my way around a large Molton Brown display to find Gok Wan fiddling with his headphones with the same air of bemused anticipation as everyone else.

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Natasha Day and Dominic Kraemer

The lights dim, we self-consciously slip on our headphones and hear Rossini’s orchestral introduction to Figaro’s opening aria.  I heard Charles Rice before I saw him, moving through the ‘audience’ pausing to rest a hand on a shoulder here or give a wry smile there.

The end of his aria saw us guided upstairs to the ‘Designer Room’ where, among the carefully curated dining sets, we perched to watch a series of excerpts from La Boheme and La Traviata, performed exquisitely by Natasha Day, Oliver Johnston and Katherine Crompton.  Then up the spiral staircase to the strains of Dido’s Lament before ending up in the ‘Sleep Studio’ to watch Mimi die on a Tempur mattress surrounded by the full cast of six.

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Natasha Day and Katherine Crompton

Lasting under an hour and cleverly weaving together themes from different operas, it’s a perfect introduction to the genre for those unwilling to commit themselves to a three-hour production or to the emotional undertaking of traditional opera.  The creative use of a commercial space is exciting, especially in a genre that often struggles under the weight of its own traditions.  Director Daisy Evans, a recent recipient of the Sky Arts Futures Fund, says this is only the beginning.  “In my next project, I want to explore the relationship between the performance and the audience using Bluetooth technology and real-time social media updates from around the venue.”  Here’s one to watch.

Silent Opera’s last performance at Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road is Wednesday 23rd October 2013.  Tickets https://heals-silent3.eventbrite.com/

ADULT SUPERVISION at the PARK THEATRE, Finsbury

17 Oct

First appeared in British Theatre Guide on 16th October 2013

Rating ****

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Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain
Photo credit Mark Douet

That is what tonight is about”, exclaims one of Sarah Rutherford’s white mothers – the play approaching its halfway point.  Unless you’ve been asleep you’ll know she’s talking about race.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll already be suffering from mild concussion at being repeatedly slapped about the chops with the subject.

The action takes place in a swanky London ‘media room’ on the eve of Obama’s election in 2008.  Pursed-lipped and sanctimonious, Natasha plays hostess to three other mothers in an evening devised to diversify the racial portfolio of her children’s friends.  Mo and Angela are both one half of mixed race couples and “Aryan” Izzy’s only there as moral support – and because she’s known Natasha for years.  The four women turn to Truth or Dare and lethal ‘Obamatinis’ in a desperate bid to break the ice.  Meanwhile their absent children and men begin to drive the action from civilised small talk to knife-wielding hysteria.

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Olivia Poulet, Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain
Photo credit Mark Douet

As etiquette breaks down, there are fantastic moments of farce.  Angela, her vast pregnant belly and a medicinal cocktail bouncing regally together on Natasha’s exercise ball; Izzy’s entrance in full wedding regalia, bare bottom exposed; the unravelling of Natasha’s perfectly coiffed hair as she well and truly loses her composure.  This cast certainly nails comic timing, riffing off each other in a virtuous (and at times vicious) cycle of energy.  Susannah Doyle imbues the uptight Natasha with a touch of camp, while Olivia Poulet manages to move her naïve subservient Izzy away from the girlishness of her first appearance.  Amy Robbins, as the initially most likeable Mo, and Jacqueline Boatswain, as the unflappable Angela, arguably have the harder parts to play.  They cope brilliantly, steering away from easy stereotypes and allowing the comedy of their characters to build gradually as their contradictions are exposed.

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Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain
Photo credit Mark Douet

Race issues may be rammed down the audience’s throat and some of the points laboured (Angela feels it necessary to repeat and clarify the obvious post-colonial overtones of Natasha making her Ethiopian children “earn” back everything they’re given by their white parents), but on the whole the subject is handled with sophistication and modernity.  The conversation in which Angela and Mo indirectly ask Natasha why she chose to adopt black babies rather than “white trash” raises a difficult issue little confronted in the tabloid press, where Madonna and ‘Brangelina’ are feted as “the saviours of poor little black kids” without regard for the power structure this suggests.

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Jacqueline Boatswain and Olivia Poulet
Photocredit Mark Douet

Much has been made new playwright Sarah Rutherford’s originality in Adult Supervision.  But as the action unfolded I couldn’t shift the sense of déjà vu.  Déjà vu the U.S. election night setting – Christopher Shinn’s Now or Later (Royal Court, 2008).  Déjà vu the disintegration of social niceties when four parents are confined for an evening in a smart city apartment with access to booze and nothing to talk about but their kids – Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (Gielgud Theatre, 2008).  And déjà vu race talk – Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (Royal Court, 2010) and David Mamet’s Race (Hampstead Theatre, 2013).

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Jacqueline Boatswain and Olivia Poulet
Photo credit Mark Douet

Perhaps Rutherford could have made more out of gender with her all-female cast?  She touches on notions of motherhood, but ironically some of the most powerful characters in the play are the husbands, boyfriends and sons we never see.

None of that seemed to bother the guffawing audience.  The Park’s founder and artistic director Jez Bond has every right to a smug smile.  While Adult Supervision may pander to the self-indulgent navel gazing of the urbane liberal middle classes, its astuteness makes that mild concussion well worth it.

Until 3rd November.  Tickets:  020 7870 6876.  parktheatre.co.uk

OPERA 24’s COSI FAN TUTTE at the ARCOLA THEATRE

1 Aug
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Danae Eleni, Louisa Tee and Sophie Yelland

Appeared in The British Theatre Guide 31st July 2013

Rating ***

With a run of only four nights, you might have imagined Opera 24 would give themselves less work and use their modernisation of Cosi Fan Tutte as an excuse to cut Mozart’s opera down to a more manageable length.  But not a bit of it.  Running just under three hours, theirs is as faithful to the original as you can be – well, with a reworked English libretto catapulted into the twenty-first century.  And that’s the balance this production seeks: between honouring the eighteenth-century original and creating a new piece of entertainment for a modern audience.

On the whole it does this well.  Brian David’s English version, though far from subtle and lacking linguistic nuance, stops short of translating the all-important eponymous lyric and cleverly holds onto one Italian aria by turning it into a performance by Ferrando – a neat bit of metatheatricality for the audience.  The seven-piece orchestra, conducted by John Jansson (who also scored the arrangement), is a welcome alternative to the solo piano or orchestral recording often used in smaller opera productions.

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Andre Refig and Danae Eleni

The casting is excellent: Louisa Tee (Fiordiligi) and Sophie Yelland (Dorabella)’s voices meld into a tapestry of warm sound, and Tee treats the audience to her full soprano strength in her second Act aria.  Danae Eleni (Despina) shows off her range and the supported power of her voice through her different disguises.  Among the male voices Christopher Jacklin (Guglielmo) stands out, with a smooth and easy range, while Andre Refig (Don Alfonso) brings the recitative alive through his vocal acting, pompously enjoying the plosives and angrily spitting consonants.

The success of a modern English libretto like this one relies on a cast with the acting ability to make it plausible and – in this case – comic.  Jacklin and Edward Saklatvala (Ferrando)’s comic duo has one foot in television double acts like Mitchell and Webb and the other rooted in Cosi’s opera buffa tradition.  Their reappearance in the second scene as a couple of Californian “dudes”, jeans riding lower with each swagger, had the audience in stitches.  Ferrando’s discomfort in espousing both his new character and false moustache are portrayed by Saklatvala with comic skill rarely seen in opera.  Here the updating of Albanians to Kosovans (when Despina speculates as to the identity of the two newcomers) is politically apt.  Settling on American identities works well, and although the accents are initially distracting, it makes sense for the pair to disguise what is their most identifying feature in the context of an opera – their voices.  It was a shame on opening night that Saklatvala dropped his American accent in the second Act.

The acting is strong enough to hold an audience’s attention, but a little more creativity with the set wouldn’t have gone amiss.  In fantastic space like the Arcola, it would have been easy to set the few scenes with minimal furniture.  The four identical chairs (seemingly grabbed from the audience) which constitute the set would have been more effective had their design related to the character to which they are linked.  Blocking was by and large ok, although a few trip-ups and collisions betrayed a lack of coherent direction.  And the lighting seemed incoherent, occasionally changing at odds with the mood of the scene.

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Sophie Yelland and Louisa Tee

This occasional lack of integrity is the production’s only problem.  It takes enough liberties with Lorenzo da Ponte’s original libretto to fill the opera with modern jokes, but doesn’t quite take that freedom to its creative zenith.  A lighting sequence during Ferrando’s second Act aria in which he moves from lit square to lit square onstage is creative, but it bears no relation to the rest of the production’s lighting and so fails to signify anything.  This sequence could have been used to symbolize an ongoing game of noughts and crosses between the sexes had there been any use of lighting to this effect elsewhere.

The odd lack of cohesion is a small price to pay for an adaptation that mostly manages to strike a pleasing balance between eighteenth and twenty-first century versions of Cosi.  Most importantly, it’s a great evening’s entertainment.

Opera 24’s Cosi Fan Tutte is performed on:

30th, 31st July

2nd, 3rd August

Buy tickets here.

DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES at Grange Park Opera, Hampshire

11 Jun

An evening of visual austerity is rewarded with richness of sound.

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In a climate that continues to be cash-strapped for the arts, Poulenc’s second opera – written as he suffered a breakdown – is a daring choice for privately funded Grange Park Opera. Conspicuously lacking the visual feast of Eugene Onegin’s ball or the accessibility of Italian bel canto in Puritani (both also playing at the Hampshire opera house this season), Dialogues des Carmélites isn’t a crowd-pleasing blockbuster aimed at lifting the generous spirits of potential sponsors in the audience. It demands a level of engagement in both subject matter and music that requires an investment of energy from the audience.

Director John Doyle seems to find this a challenge, especially in the opening scenes during which the largely recitative nature of Carmélites establishes itself. In fact there are no real arias in the opera, and drama is at a minimum, apart from at the end of each act. Audience members having rushed from work to make curtains up could be forgiven for drifting off when confronted with Liz Ascroft’s austere set and Poulenc’s at times dissonant “dialogues”.

The bare stage and unchanging scene create the self-denial and claustrophobia of the nuns during their persecution. But they also force our attention to where, arguably, it should always be: on the music and performances. Thankfully most of the cast hold their own in this department. Hye-Youn Lee brings vocal depth to Blanche, moving around the music and the French dexterously enough to make the fiendish part seem easy. Her duet with Nicky Spence’s Chevalier is brimming with barely restrained emotion. Anne-Marie Owens’ Old Prioress is captivating in her dying scene, the theological battle raging inside communicated through the force of her soaring contralto. Though a young voice, Soraya Mafi as Sister Constance rises above the orchestra with a purity of tone where other more developed voices in the cast fail. Nigel Robson’s Chaplain seemed to stumble on the French but made up for it with a sensitive tenor performance.

Those who make the effort to engage are rewarded with the full sensuality of a score that belies Poulenc’s membership of Les Six and harks back to the flowing sounds of Debussy – admirably performed by the English Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Stephen Barlow. Indeed, Carmélites is as much an opera for the large orchestra it requires for its gorgeous motifs, as it is for the singers with their haunting harmonies.

While the finale is as gruesomely tragic as any Puccini, the horror happens offstage in this production. The emphasis is on contemplation, emotion and spirituality rather than on entertainment – for the audience as much as the characters. For audience members willing to enter into this spirit, the experience is a unique one. As Poulenc himself said of Carmélites, people won’t find it exactly amusing, but I think they will be deeply moved. Grange Park Opera’s Chief Executive Wasfi Kani will be hoping the movement is in the right direction.

For tickets click here.

GET IN WHILE STOCKS LAST: BALLO AT THE KINGS HEAD THEATRE

24 May

ImageIt was a full house last night as an audience of everything from grey-topped opera lovers to opportunistic drinkers crammed into the tiny theatre at the back of Islington’s King’s Head for director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s camped-up ride through Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.  And that’s the appeal of this irreverent mash-up of an opera historically familiar with rewritings at the hands of the censors: it understands what pub opera is – accessible enough for the non-initiated and inventively new for the devotees.

The cartoon plot exposition opening the show, far from giving the game away (how many audience members at Covent Garden are surprised by the ending of Aida or Tosca anyway?) acts as a neat bridge between the 1859 and 2013 versions.  By dispensing early with the business of Verdi’s plot, the cast can get on with entertaining their 21st century audience with more freedom.

And that they certainly do.  Re-located to the IKEA at Wembley, re-scripted in bawdy modern English and re-timed to two hours, the six-strong team control the small space with a slickness deserving of a bigger stage.  Ensemble singing is well-timed and most solo performances are strong.  In a sensible modern update Oscar, the female trouser role, is played by a male soprano (Alan Richardson) whose vocal ease is almost eclipsed by his fabulously camp flouncing.  His pairing with a thoroughly modernised Ulrica (played superbly by Olivia Barry) suggests a sort of Shakespearean comedy duo, embracing the tradition of the pub venue rather than seeking to transcend it.

Much of the comedy comes from the bathos of distilling Verdi’s universal and epic themes of loyalty, friendship and revenge down into the office politics of flat-packing and pay rises.  It’s the gossip around the office that Tom (Dickon Gough) delights over when Amelia’s veil falls, rather than a king’s betrayal of his best friend.  And yet the ‘car park scene’ is rescued from farce by the strength of Gough’s vocal performance.

The secret of this adaptation is that it doesn’t seek to be anything it’s not, nor to emulate big budget productions of the same opera.  By embracing its limitations with as much affection as it does the original libretto, it succeeds in something much harder than putting on a good Verdi: making opera enjoyable for the next generation of theatre-goers.

The store closes this Sunday so get in quick.

You can buy tickets here.

Cillian Murphy Onstage: Worth a Watch?

15 May

Misterman, Lyttelton, National Theatre
by Enda Walsh
Landmark Productions

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Magill in Misterman

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Magill in Misterman

****

If you thought the UK premiere of Enda Walsh’s one-man play Misterman would drown in the National’s cavernous Lyttelton Theatre, you’d be wrong. Clearly aware of the space he has to fill, Cillian Murphy has already inhabited every nook of the divided stage and thrown oil drums into the crannies he’s missed before the first five minutes are up.

Last seen on screen, Murphy is not afraid of the stage, and the atmosphere he creates is immediately one of intense energy. His character, Thomas Magill, is an evangelical young man trapped in the memory of one fateful day in his hometown of Innisfree. As he darts around the littered warehouse (his mind?), a scattered collection of cassette players snap on and off with recordings of voices from Innisfree, Yeats’ fictional village.

The snippets of recorded voices, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, do less to pluralise the play than Murphy, who jumps vocally from squeaky schoolboy to foul-mouthed old man with an ease and energy that fill the theatre. The repertoire is extraordinary: one minute Murphy is cowering under a deluge of beatings as Magill, the next he is sashaying across the floor with a toss of his imaginary curls as the town’s lascivious café-owner. He doesn’t simply move between Walsh’s comic and haunting passages; he embodies both simultaneously.

Even reduced to one character, Walsh remains characteristically and perhaps indulgently long-winded, creating in Magill a tormented chatterbox. His first words are mutterings of part of the school catechism. But for all that particular Irish brand of Catholic guilt, Misterman isn’t a play about village religion.

“I wanted it to be about a man and a building,” Walsh says in an interview with Sean O’Hagan, “and for the audience to be asking from the off: ‘How did he end up there?’ And: ‘What’s he trying to tell us and why?’”

The audience I watched it with were still asking those questions as they left the Lyttelton. For some it was an exposé of a mind going mad, obsessively re-editing the events of one day in the outside world; for others the recorded voices were actually meant to represent actors, presumably seeing them as a cost-cutting measure to reduce the number of actors in these straightened times! Magill’s mother complex and the poignancy of a scene in which he talks to the grave of his dead father elicited a Freudian reading in some.

For Murphy, Magill’s isolation from the village’s inhabitants in his homemade industrial cave is a reflection of his internal progression. In the same interview, he says Magill “is one of those people who is like a little baby inside, who started off being pitied, then kept apart and viewed with suspicion, and then mocked in the community. Bit by bit, he has become this marginalised figure who then takes his revenge.”

But for Walsh, trying to work out the play’s message isn’t the point. “Oh, I never think of stuff like that. It’s more about form, and how much you can twist the form to fit what you can into it. I think that’s what a lot of younger Irish playwrights are grappling with; how to take on the great tradition and fuck it up a bit.” This may explain why, even as the full horror of what Magill has done becomes clear, Walsh presents him as a sympathetic character. Bursts of troubling wit and physical comedy keep even the shortest attention span from wandering.

This is reflected in the reviews. The production has been rated five stars by The Daily Express, and four stars by The Telegraph, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Financial Times and Time Out. Only Quentin Letts gives it one star, calling it a “pretentious” play “about people with mental illness” and “small rural communities”. But this may say more about the Daily Mail readership than the performance.

Walsh speaks of wanting to take a hammer to rural Ireland, and Misterman certainly does smash up the Irish idyll that still carried weight in the late 1990s when Walsh first wrote the script. But in 2012 what the play highlights is the loneliness of being an old-fashioned evangelist in modern rural Ireland. There is no place for Magill in the twenty-first century. He is as anachronistic as the school catechism that Walsh gives him to speak.