Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dvd/150: FEMALE ON THE BEACH (Joseph Pevney, 1955)

Ten years after winning her Academy Award for MILDRED PIERCE, Joan Crawford was still a star but the films ranged in quality over that era.

A dip in the early 50s changed with an Oscar nomination for her woman-in-peril in SUDDEN FEAR in 1952 and this theme was revisited three years later in Universal's FEMALE ON THE BEACH.

Joan always gave full-on performances but with a bad script she looks too obvious - in FOTB she reminds you of Scott Fitzgerald's remark about her not being able to change emotions without "Jekyll and Hyde facial contortions".

Rich widow Lynn Markham moves into a beach house owned by her husband only to find the former tenant died falling from the balcony - imperious Lynn comes into contact with house agent Jan Sterling, gamblers Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schaefer, and charming but feckless sailor Jeff Chandler - but is one a killer?

Shelf or charity shop? I think this will live in DVD limbo (kept in a paper sleeve and in a plastic storage box)...  I am sure I will want to see Joan waltzing through this hokum again in either Dior new look frocks or showing off her legs in shorts!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Remembering Ian...

I was going through some programmes from the early 1990s a few weeks back and found something that soon had my jaw hanging open...

In a US Playbill I found a full page appreciation of one of the greatest performances I will ever see - Ian Charleson's heroic HAMLET at the National Theatre in October, 1989, less than three months before his death from an AIDS-related illness.  I had not noticed it before but as I read it I was amazed to see that it matched exactly my thoughts on Ian's acting - and it has laid quietly in a storage box all this time for me to finally discover it.

Ian was only 40 when he died and we were all robbed of the performances he never gave; he is so frozen in time it is strange to think that he would have been 68 this year but one has only to look at his contemporaries Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Simon Callow and Robert Lindsay to know he might still have been delivering great performances.  Just thinking of Shakespeare alone, we lost his Prospero, Lear, Claudius, Titus Andronicus, Leontes, Malvolio, Oberon, Macbeth and Richard II.

So thank you Richard Allan Davison, wherever you are...  and of course, thank you Ian.  Goodnight Sweet Prince...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TREE OF CODES at Sadler's Wells Theatre: beyond words so let's dance...

Take one cutting-edge choreographer, one unclassable book, one current musician and one modern artist... now stir it up and stand back and marvel; I give you the truly astonishing TREE OF CODES.

As you are aware Constant Reader, it was through Wayne McGregor's hypnotic WOOLF WORKS at Covent Garden that I finally found an appreciation for dance in all it's forms.  Although McGregor has been the resident choreographer at Covent Garden for the past eleven years he still works with his own independent company which he uses for more avant garde projects.  For TREE OF CODES his troupe has teamed up with the Paris Opera Ballet to form a company of 15 dancers who are simply unstoppable!

McGregor was a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer's artifact TREE OF CODES and seeking to work on a project with the installation artist Olafur Eliasson he was thrilled to discover that Eliasson and Foer were friends.  TREE OF CODES was Foer's 'remix' of the Bruno Schultz novel STREET OF CROCODILES which consisted of Foer cutting away words to make his own book out of the existing text.

However McGregor's extraordinary body-bending (and mind-bending) choreography is actually only a part of a glorious whole which shows him to be a true collaborator.  The propulsive electro score came from the composer Jamie xx which was an excellent aural backdrop to McGregor's seemingly limitless choreography.

For me the key element to the show's success was the astonishing visual design of Olafur Eliasson.  Creating WOW moments is what Eliasson does - I discovered him, as a great many others did, in 2003 when he created The Weather Project for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall a.k.a. The Big Sun - one of the truly most awesome creations I have ever seen!

Since then I have marvelled at his work with light and water as well as his simple-but-profound Ice Watch in Paris 2015, for which he transplanted 12 large blocks of ice, weighing in total 80 tonnes, to form a clock-like circle with which the public could interact, only for it to slowly melt to nothingness in only 9 days.

Here in essence using only lights, mirrors and screens he created a total immersive stage environment which time-and-again found me wanting to get up there to stop the show and shout out loud "but how do you do THAT??"  Of course I would never actually want to know that - it's so rare that nowadays you see a genuine scenic wonder on stage that I wanted it to never end.  Two screens descended at one point: a couple were between the audience and the first screen with a second couple between the first and second screens then beyond that was a large semi-circular mirror - the first couple however were only reflected once while the second seemed to be reflected ad infinitum... like, how??  It was like watching a 70s Top Of The Pops camera effect live!

Oh and the reflections moved too! One moment they were at stage level then they hovered above the dancers as the orange neon strip-lights hanging above the dancers also multiplied behind them.  Each 'scene' saw a new vision unfolding but always with a breathtaking simplicity that made you wonder why no one had ever done that before.

The last scene was again a feast for the eyes - and ears - with the whole company onstage but seen through a large screen which had two large circles in the middle which slowly opened and rotated at different speeds filling the whole stage and auditorium with shafts of solid coloured light, all quite stunning.

TREE OF CODES was a totally unexpected wonder but only played a week at Sadler's Wells - hopefully it will appear again soon.  I recommend it highly

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

HAMLET at the Almeida - something old, something new...

It is now with a regular sense of trepidation that I take my seat to see any play from The Repertoire - it used to be plays pre-20th Century but now even Tennessee Williams has fallen victim to the sweep of Director Theatre - and as the lights go down I ask myself "Am I going to see a version of a classic play that will illuminate while showing why it has stood the test of time - or am I going to see a production by a director who is jamming a classic text into their pre-conceived ideas of audience alienation and quirk-for-quirk's sake gender-blind casting or post-modern tropes?"

It was with the above feelings that I sat down to watch Robert Icke's production of HAMLET at the Almeida and, for most of it's 3 + 3/4 hours running time, I was surprised at the clarity of vision despite the odd anachronistic elbow-in-the-eye.  But then as the climax of the play careered out of control it felt almost like Robert Icke just vomited out all the Director Theatre tricks he had managed to keep down up until then.

Of course nowadays a director feels the urge to give us a HAMLET at about the same time as a name actor edges into the spotlight to play it.  Andrew Scott, this is your 5 minute call... 5 minutes Mr Scott.  I have seen Andrew Scott only once before onstage - DESIGN FOR LIVING at the Old Vic in 2010 - so it was interesting to see him step up to have a go at the gloomy Dane.

For the most part he succeeded but his performance was let down by Icke having him burst into loud tears at the drop of a hat - yes we get it, he's still grieving for his father - and an annoying tendency to over-do the bellowing when Hamlet is riled up.  It's all the more absurd as he has only just told the Players: 

Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings...

But for the most part Scott was very good at speaking the verse - the great soliloquies were not sung out like arias but delivered quietly, as if coming to him for the first time. Where he sits in my league of Hamlets will have to be seen, at the moment I suspect somewhere below Rory Kinnear and my all-time number one Ian Charleson.

That he ultimately did not move me is more the fault of Icke's production than Scott's actual performance.  As I said I enjoyed the first two acts much more than I was expecting and indeed was on board for most of the last act, but as I said above, Icke's botched handling of the climax seemed to almost undercut any chance for the actors to shine.

We had been forewarned to the elements of the botched ending - just as Ivo van Hove's over-reliance on Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' irked during his HEDDA GABLER so Icke's seemingly inexhaustible Bob Dylan collection here very quickly bored, Icke shared Nicholas Hytner's 2010 NT vision of Elsinore as a closed circuit surveillance state and occasionally a large screen dropped down to give us updates on Fortinbrass's progress, to show the security cameras picking up the ghostly presence of the dead King (which actually was very effective) and then to show the reactions of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet to "The Mousetrap" while they sat in the front row of the stalls.

This last bit of business was gimmicky and cumbersome (despite the fact that the handheld cameras showing the royal family also picked up the truly regal Vanessa Redgrave sitting behind them!) but it was distracting from the very fine performances of David Rintoul as the Player King and Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen.  So the final scene... again the screen appeared to show the onstage duel (which we could see anyway) as Angus Wright and Juliet Stevenson as Claudius and Gertrude sat again in the front row - why??  With the duellists' faces covered up with fencing masks we really needed to concentrate on the King and Queen to get the undertow of emotions but this was totally lost.

But if this stage blocking ruined the personal dynamic between the characters at the climax of the show, the text was drowned out by the BLARING final Bob Dylan song - do you love Gertrude's "He’s fat, and scant of breath...the queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet" or her defiant retort to Claudius' command for her not to drink from the poisoned cup "I will, my lord. I pray you, pardon me"?  Well you won't hear them here as the bloody song blares out while Stevenson mouths the words.  At least her violent convulsions after being poisoned were more convincing than Gertrude's usual drop and die.

And it didn't end there - Hildegard Bechtler's stage design featured sliding glass panels with a hidden room beyond shrouded by curtains.  It immediately reminded me of Tom Scutt's low-fi set for the NT's MEDEA and with Bechtler's low-level leather couches, easy chairs and arty standard lamps, this is an Elsinore designed around 1981 Sunday supplement advertisements.  But at the end, rather than have Horatio (a short-changed Elliot Barnes-Worrall) and Hamlet exchange the famous last words as he dies, we had a musical fugue where the room beyond was revealed to show Polonious and Ophelia slow-dancing together as one by one the Ghost beckoned those recently dead - Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude - to stand up and join the party within...  all of which vanished to show that we had just been watching what was going on in Hamlet's mind as he died.  I am sure if Shakespeare had wanted a parade across the stage at this point he would have done it as in MACBETH and RICHARD III... so Icke, don't bloody make a long night longer just to be fucking contrary!

As I said, this awful version of the play's climax was all the more frustrating as up until then there had been much to enjoy, albeit in a production which seemed to be made up of moments and not a through line of dramatic tension - Scott's delicate handling of the speeches (when not ranting during Ophelia's funeral), the genuinely spooky glimpses of the Ghost on the security cameras as well as well-rounded performances from the always-dependable Peter Wight as a Polonius seemingly beset by early dementia, Barry Aird's sarcastic Gravedigger, Jessica Brown-Findlay's o'erthrown Ophelia, the earlier-mentioned Rintoul and Cruickshank and a suitably volatile Luke Thompson as Laertes.

Juliet Stevenson was a very good Gertrude, slowly coming to realize the truth behind Hamlet's rages; she proved again what a good actress can find within the otherwise frustratingly-thin role - in particular she delivered the drowning of Ophelia speech wonderfully.  Stevenson also provided the unexpected laugh of the evening when she ran out after the raving Ophelia only to go WHONGGG into the closed glass screen door.  However, in keeping with this unpredictable production, as good as Stevenson was, she only showed up how disastrously low-rent Angus Wright was as Claudius; he played it like it was a tech rehearsal.

So another stage HAMLET to add to the pile, my tenth in all.  I would be surprised if I see another production this year, but it is a play that I find endlessly facinating and profoundly moving when done right, alack not here however - Mr Scott, your director done rained on your parade.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY at Covent Garden - Awake again...

The Royal Ballet's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY was the third in an unconsciously-booked ballet triple bill and found us back in the front row of the amphitheatre circle at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  After the Royal Ballet's own haunting WOOLF WORKS and Matthew Bourne's entertaining EARLY ADVENTURES it was time for something a bit more classical, and they don't come more classic than Marius Petipa's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Again I was struck by the actual history behind the production: in 1947 it was decided that Ninette De Valois' Sadler's Wells Ballet company would be the permanent dance company at Covent Garden - which had been turned into a dance hall during WWII! - and she decided that, to match the building coming back to life, her first production would be THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. 

It was largely based on a 1939 production by Nicholas Sergeyev who had fled Bolshevik Russia in 1919, bringing with him the Imperial Ballet 'bibles' for the productions of the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.  Thanks to his actions, these classic productions have lived on through the years so, bearing in mind Petipa created his SLEEPING BEAUTY choreography in 1890, in essence we were watching moves that were 127 years old!

De Valois' production stayed in the repertoire for over 20 years but different productions came and went until the hers was brought back in 2006 to celebrate the Royal Ballet's 75th Anniversary and it has stayed ever since, using the original stage designs of Oliver Messell (revised for changes in the size of the stage and in new costume techniques).  Certain sections of Petipa's choreography have been added to down the years by Sir Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon.

As I have said previously, it is quite odd to bear all this in mind when watching the ballet; we don't go to the theatre to see Michael Elliot's production of AS YOU LIKE IT which catapulted Vanessa Redgrave to fame in 1961 or Michel Saint-Denis's 1936 production of THREE SISTERS, let alone Peter Brook's 1956 TITUS ANDRONICUS - no matter how acclaimed a theatre production, they are rarely revived after more than a year.

Of course, The Royal Ballet can be accused of running a museum theatre but thanks to the consistent quality of their dancers, the ballet always triumphs - one had only to witness the stolid Bolshoi productions from last year to see The Royal Ballet's quality.  The most glaringly old-fashioned part of the production was the over-the-top miming that passes for performance when they are not dancing: circling around the face to show how beautiful Aurora is, gesturing to objects, resting a head on outstretched arms to show sleep... it eventually suggested dancing for the deaf.

There was added drama just as the lights went down when Director of the Royal Ballet Kevin O'Hare stepped out from the famous red curtains to announce that due to the illness of Lauren Cuthbertson, the role of Aurora would be danced by Yasmine Naghdi and the Prince would be danced by Matthew Ball who had both debuted in the roles the previous Saturday.  Both were fine, Naghdi was a bit under-whelming at the start but she shone in the famous Rose Adagio in which Aurora dances a dazzling solo of movement and balanced stillness.

If I am honest, I wasn't ever emotionally swept away by the story; all the pantomime acting and the odd pacing of the story - our hero finally appears an hour and 50 minutes after kick-off - and any ensemble number where the women have floral bowers to wave about always set my teeth on edge, but the quality of the performance was so high that there was plenty to enjoy.

There were fine supporting performances from Hayley Forskitt as the evil Carabosse and Tierney Heap as her good nemesis The Lilac Fairy while there was also exquisite work from Helen Crawford as a skittish Fairy of The Golden Vine and James Hay as the scene-stealing Bluebird in the final wedding scene.  Tchaikovsky's score sounded sumptuous under the baton of Koen Kessels.

 I am glad to have finally seen this important work in the Royal Ballet's repertoire but as the piece has occasionally been added to over the years maybe it is time to have a look at maybe making the non-dance moments not so archaic?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

EARLY ADVENTURES at Richmond Theatre - Matthew Bourne goes back to before...

Happy Anniversary to Matthew Bourne who has been choreographing and leading his own dance companies for 30 years - a remarkable achievement for a choreographer.  To celebrate this anniversary, we have had the new and thrilling new production THE RED SHOES and his WWII spin on Prokofiev's CINDERELLA will be revived at Christmas but in the meantime we have a tour of three early works which show the genesis of the Bourne style EARLY ADVENTURES.

It was a bit of a culture shock seeing it, coming so soon after being immersed in the stage and screen representations of the Royal Ballet's profound WOOLF WORKS, at first it seemed a bit too lightweight and throwaway, but it won over with it's abundance of cheeky irreverence and winning style.  The patrons at Richmond seemed a bit thrown by the brevity of the works - the whole triple bill was over in two hours - but they were just the right length.

It is proof that Bourne's style arrived fairly well fully-formed; there are moves in these early pieces which would not have looked out of place in 2016's THE RED SHOES.  His whole style can be traced to his Laban training: the principal tenets of body - effort - shape - space could almost describe his choreography.  But Bourne infuses his choreography with a delicious sense of fun and character; sometimes this can overtip productions - EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is all character and very little actual dance - but when the balance is right it's wonderful.

First up was the only one of the three I had not seen, WATCH WITH MOTHER from 1991, Bourne's take on a 1950s "music and movement" primary school class.  Danced to music arranged by Percy Grainger and featuring moments from Joyce Grenfell's school teacher sketch, the company of nine dancers, 3 female and 6 male, had great fun with their skipping, leaping and stretched movements.  This was one of the first pieces that Bourne worked on and it shows the youthful zest of Bourne finding his visual language.

The second (and third as it was broken up by an unnecessary interval) was TOWN AND COUNTRY, Bourne's hymn of praise to all things English.  By far the more interesting of the two sections TOWN gave a particular spotlight to the ever-dependable Danny Collins as a ukulele-playing butler and a sneering waiter in a tea-room which features in Bourne's loving tribute to BRIEF ENCOUNTER only this time there were two pairs of Alec and Laura's!  Meanwhile a posh couple get undressed and bathed by their stoic servants, a male gay couple slowly express their love and the whole company whiz around the stage on scooters - see hipsters, you didn't invent them.  The soundtrack is delicious with, among others, Noel Coward, Rachmaninoff, Eric Coates and Jack Strachey's glorious IN PARTY MOOD (aka the 'Housewives' Choice' theme).

The COUNTRY section is my least favourite, I find it outstays it's welcome but there was still nice moments including clog-dancing yokels right out of LA FILLE MAL GARDE, indeed their galumphing about cause the death of a cute hedgehog - don't panic he's a glove-puppet.

The final section was my favourite, THE INFERNAL GALOP from 1989.  Bourne's tribute to all-things Parisian includes the mer-man (dressed in silk dressing gown and socks) assisted by three matelots and the fabulous routine of two men attempting to have a rendezvous in a pissoir who are frequently interrupted by a mariachi band!  Although played for comedy, Bourne's choreography for the two men is outstanding and very sexy, the pay-off is also a surprise!

It was lovely to see these three works onstage, the company were full of character and great fun, Bourne's regular stage designer Lez Brotherston provided a simple canopied set which finally paid off in the final section and Andrew Murrell was responsible for the atmospheric lighting - although whoever was in charge of the dry-ice might think twice about swamping the stage so much for the start of THE INFERNAL GALOP.

The EARLY ADVENTURES tour continues in Oxford, Poole, Madrid, Blackpool, York, Liverpool, Sadler's Wells (the company's regular home in London), Northampton and Beverly Hills - if you are in the area do see this delightful, frothy production.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

WOOLF WORKS Works On Stage, Screen And CD... Living the past again

Nearly two years ago, we took the plunge - in the year of trying new things artistically - and went to Covent Garden to see WOOLF WORKS, a new Royal Ballet production choreographed by Wayne McGregor.  I remember feeling some trepidation... Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors for whom language is the key so how can you silence that but still make it relevant?  Two words... Wayne McGregor.

As you can see from my blog it had a profound effect on us both and it did indeed start a continuing exploration of ballet which has been very rewarding.  But how would the first revival of WOOLF WORKS compare - and would it have the same impact?

I am happy to be able to say that it led to a deeper, richer understanding of the work but also there was the added bonus this year of seeing it on the big screen at the Curzon Mayfair and also being able to appreciate the depth of Max Richter's music with it's release on cd.

Onstage we were blessed with practically the same cast as in 2015, the only major replacement being Calvin Richardson and his breathtaking pirouettes dancing the role of 'Evans' for the unwell Tristan Dyer in the MRS. DALLOWAY-inspired 'I Now, I Then'.  The impact of seeing the company onstage was made even more exciting by seeing the same dancers a few days later on the live cinema screening, giving an opportunity to experience their talent closer than possible at the Opera House although there was some loss too, in particular the glorious digital stage image of the garden of Clarissa's imagined youth flooding the set.

McGregor has choreographed three ballets in distinct styles: 'I Now, I Then' is the most narrative; based on MRS DALLOWAY - and introduced with the only known recording of Virginia Woolf musing on the difficulty of using old English words in new ways - we see Clarissa Dalloway (sublime Alessandra Ferri) meeting old flame Peter Walsh (Gary Aves) and relives the glorious summer she spent as a teenager with Peter and her best friend, the free spirited Sally Seton, and how life seemed full of possibility and choice.  The younger selves were danced wonderfully by Francesca Hayward, Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell.

As Clarissa is lost in memories of what could have been we also see Septimus Smith (the astonishing Edward Watson) who is tortured with the lasting trauma of shell-shock from his experience in the WWI trenches.  His wife Rezia (Akana Takada) tries to keep him engaged in life but he is lost in memories of his friend Evans (Richardson) who was killed before him.  It is a perfect fusion of performance, choreography, design by CiguĂ©, lighting by Lucy Carter - the moment the stage was suffused with glowing red when Septimus danced with Evans was glorious - and, almost a character of it's own, Max Richter's heartbreaking, longing music.

The second act 'Becomings' takes ORLANDO as it's inspiration and is the most abstract of the pieces although during one of the intervals for the screened event Wayne McGregor was interviewed by hosts Darcey Bussell and Clemency Burton-Hill and said he believed that no dance can be truly abstract as the human element will always lend a dance a narrative sense.  Again Lucy Carter's lighting is thrilling: an overhead beam roams the dark stage picking out 12 dancers in varying degrees of glittering gold Elizabethan costumes before a cold laser beam illuminates two of them and we launch into McGregor's take on Woolf's exploration of gender fluidity.

As Richter's music roams from bone-crunching electro beats to minimal keyboard runs so McGregor's choreography changes from solos to duets to triple routines for his remarkable dancers - pushing their limbs into even more challenging shapes and attitudes; the exhilaration is in seeing male and female dancers fusing into just pure dance.  With each segment, they slowly lose their Elizabethan costumes until they are in shades of grey, all dancing in and out of four overhead spotlights, all individual but all unified, until the lights cut out and the auditorium is criss-crossed with shafts of laserlight.  Again the live screening was wonderful to showcase in detail the astonishing work of, among others, Sarah Lamb, Natalia Osipova, Steven McRae and Watson.

The final act is TUESDAY and takes it inspiration from THE WAVES but also references Woolf's suicide note written on Tuesday 25th March 1941, three days before she actually drowned in the River Ouse.  McGregor has the inspired choice of Gillian Anderson reading the wrenching suicide note while a slow-motion film of crashing waves shows on a stage-wide screen all but dwarfing the stationary figure of Ferri beneath.  Anderson's measured, hypnotic delivery leads you in to McGregor's slow meditation on love and loss, beautifully danced by Ferri and Federico Bonelli who are later joined by Sarah Lamb and an ensemble which also includes young students from the Royal Ballet School.

Ferri is astonishing in her poetry and control as she becomes the embodiment of Richter's dreamlike, ethereal music, solitary notes slowly coming together with Anush Hovhannisyan's soprano to wash over you with waves of strings and brass.  There was one moment that haunts me: Alessandra Ferri starts a solo movement against the ensemble's choreography who slowly, three or four at a time, echo her until they are all bending and stretching as one, it's breathtakingly beautiful.  Slowly the ensemble ebb away into the darkness at the back of the stage, as Bonelli lowers a prone Ferri onto the stage as the music slowly vanishes note by note...

As I have said, the live screening was a wonderful opportunity to see the dancers closer than possible in the theatre and there were the added extras of interviews with Wayne McGregor and Max Richter as well as Maggie Smith reading passages from THE WAVES as well as Virginia's memoir MOMENTS OF BEING.

As I have written this I have been able to relive the experience by playing the cd THREE WORLDS of Richter's score; I wondered if it would work separately from the experience of seeing it with the dancers but it works beautifully.  It has been great to be able to explore this work in depth for the past two weeks - I would love the opportunity to see it again.