Monday, October 24, 2016

150 word review: BFI FILM CLASSICS: BRIEF ENCOUNTER by Richard Dyer

At times infuriatingly 'right-on', Dyer's monograph on David Lean's BRIEF ENCOUNTER is still worth reading for anyone who, like me, is haunted by Noel Coward's heartbreaking tale of love denied.

Dyer reiterates the recurring criticism of the middle-class world where the film is set that is now seen to be a stumbling-block to enjoying it.  He rarely addresses the obvious point: that it's 71 years-old AND THINGS WERE DIFFERENT BACK THEN!!

This 'problem' is rarely addressed when discussing period American films (let alone European films) unless in relation to race or gender.  But no, BRIEF ENCOUNTER is castigated for the way they speak... me, I look through this to connect to the emotion that lurks beneath the surface.

When the Spartisms are dropped, he writes about the desolating effect BRIEF ENCOUNTER has on those who let it in, finally admitting that he is one of them.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

150 word review: AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT by Derek Jacobi

I have finally read Derek Jacobi's autobiography which I bought in 2013 at a signing session at the National Theatre.  When we finally got to the front of the queue, he threw his head back and declaimed in his best theatrical tone: "Good evening, gentlemen!"

I wish the book was as larger-than-life but it is infuriatingly placid; it's impersonal tone might be because it's ghosted, you can almost hear the click of the tape recorder at the end of each chapter.

Born and raised in wartime Essex, cosseted by his devoted mother and father, at times you wish he was given more of a hard time by life.  Oxford led to Birmingham Rep and later Olivier's National Theatre at the Old Vic.

I CLAUDIUS brought stardom and there have been more theatre and television successes but nothing here gives you insight into how it feels to live it.

TOSCA at London Coliseum - lived for love, lived for art...

Our experiment in seeing new art forms in 2015 resulted in the success of ballet as a new favourite - 14 visits to see the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi at Covent Garden testify to this.

But opera did not fare as well - the awful Welsh National Opera production PETER PAN seemingly put paid to that.  But this year we saw Richard Eyre's production of LA TRAVIATA at Covent Garden and that whetted our appetite for the classic Big Opera.  Last week we saw English National Opera's TOSCA at the London Coliseum... and I think the operatic penny might have dropped!

This is a revival of the 2010 production by Catherine Malfitano, herself an acclaimed Tosca during her singing career, and Donna Stirrup has directed it with a steady hand, at all times keeping the action focused on the three main characters.  In this she is aided by the clever sets of Frank Philipp Schlossman, Gideon Davey's costume design and David Martin Jacques' lighting, here re-created by Kevin Sleep.

I had a vague idea of the plot, knew that it contained the magnificent aria 'Vissi d'arte' and that it had a spectacular end so the journey to that famous climax was totally new for me - and what a wonderful dramatic story Puccini and his librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica fashioned from the original play by Victorien Sardou.

1800:  With Rome in turmoil after the collapse of the French-backed republic, the jealous opera diva Floria Tosca is duped by the nasty chief of police Scarpia into thinking that her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, has vanished with another woman when in reality he knows Mario is hiding an escaped republican prisoner.  The police follow her to Cavaradossi's hiding place and arrest him.  Cavaradossi is tortured in the room next to where Scarpia has had Tosca brought and to stop her lover's ordeal she reveals to Scarpia where the escaped prisoner is hiding.  Mario is due to be shot at dawn but Scarpia tells Tosca - who he is obsessed with - that he will arrange a 'fake' shooting if she sleeps with him. 

They hear that the escaped prisoner has killed himself, Tosca knows Scarpia will want revenge so agrees to his bargain but on the proviso that he sign a safe-conduct pass for her and Cavaradossi.  After Scarpia has signed the document, she stabs him to death singing "This is the kiss of Tosca".  On the roof of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Cavaradossi reflects that despite her actions, his love for Tosca was the greatest thing in his life.  She appears and tells him she has killed Scarpia, that the execution squad will fire blanks and coaches him on how to 'play dead' then they can escape. The soldiers appear and Tosca exults in their triumph of Scarpia.  However his is the final triumph as Mario is shot dead. She hears the clamour at the discovery of Scarpia's corpse and rather than be arrested, she throws herself from the parapet shouting "Scarpia... in the eyes of God".

The dramatic momentum of the plot in this production drives towards the famous climax with a powerful relentlessness, it's only on reflection that you realize that the action takes place within less than 24 hours.  What I also loved about the production was that, unlike most revivals, Malfitano did not set decide to impose a jarring 'concept' on the production - setting it in the Swinging 60s or in Dublin in 1916 (yes Globe Theatre I am looking at you...) but vaguely in period and allowing nothing to distract from the music and the performances.

Tosca was brought to magnificent life by American soprano Keri Alkema who was in splendid voice and certainly convinced as the imperious diva whose life would never be compromised.  Cavaradossi was well sung by Gwyn Hughes Jones especially his third act aria "And the stars shone" while Craig Colclough's Scarpia (or 'Shitface' as Owen re-christened him) was rewarded with ultimate accolade at his curtain call, yes he was loudly booed like a panto villain.

TOSCA has stayed with me since seeing it, in particular the sheer magnificence of Puccini's score, and I listened to a full recording while writing this to get into the mood.

She lived for art, she lived for love and she is one of the great tragic heroines of the stage.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

THE TEMPEST at Sadlers Wells - David Bintley's damp squib

Almost a year ago we went to Sadler's Wells to see a triple bill from Birmingham Royal Ballet, the works choreographed by the company's artistic director David Bintley.  There were all enjoyable in their own way with one, THE KING DANCES, being truly memorable, so when it was announced that Bintley's dance adaptation of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST was to appear at Sadler's Wells, we were keen to see it.

Sadly, although commendable in various areas of the production, it left you feeling that this TEMPEST had blown itself out somewhere between Birmingham and London.

I would have thought that you would want to stage a ballet of THE TEMPEST if you had an extra dimension to bring to the play but I sat there as one scene followed another from the play feeling more and more becalmed...yes there were nice moments but they were fleeting.

Ultimately it all felt a little too polite; as Virginia Woolf said of another female writer "It aimed to soar but agreed to perch".  There was no particular larger-than-life feel to it, no feeling that between them Prospero and Ariel could conjure up wonders.  Sally Beamish's score was interesting in spells (no pun intended) but ultimately for most of the first act was too wishy-washy to inspire much excitement.

The infuriating thing was that there were good things within it: Rae Smith's excellent set suggested the curves in the bottom of a boat and had a great reveal at the end when the ship was suddenly revealed as in burnished copper, ready to return the principals to Naples.  The opening image too showed great promise: the burnished, glittering ship seen in miniature hanging in mid-air only to be caught and held aloft by an airborne Ariel.

There were also likeable turns from Jenna Roberts as Miranda, Mathias Dingman as Ariel and Tyrone Singleton as Caliban but Iain Mackay's Prospero felt woefully undercharged and flashed around the stage more like a ballet version of Captain Jack Sparrow than as the vengeful deposed Duke of Milan.

Only in the last ten minutes or so did the production kick into life when Bruno Poet's lighting created a circle of magic in the darkness for Prospero to confront his enemies but Bintley's gesturing choreography could never match or even illustrate the haunting quality of a speech like Prospero's "Our revels now are ended..."

After the effortless magic of The Royal Ballet's LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE a few days earlier, this all felt... well, over to you Will Shakespeare... "like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind".

Monday, October 17, 2016

LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE at Covent Garden - timeless pastoral pleasure

Last week it was time to return to Covent Garden for the first time since the Bolshoi Ballet came for a summer visit and slightly underwhelmed with their technically perfect but emotionally sterile performances.  But here we are on more satisfying ground with the Royal Ballet's evergreen production of Sir Frederick Ashton's LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE.

Ashton's 1960 production has remained a constant in the Royal Ballet's repertoire and I suspect has been many people's first experience of ballet as it plays like a ballet pantomime.  The night we saw it was it's 364th performance!

The very first production of LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE was in 1789 with music based on popular French compositions.  In an 1828 revival this music was rewritten by composer Ferdinand Hérold into a more streamlined score.  However in 1864 an Italian production commissioned a new score by the composer Peter Ludwig Hertel - it's quite confusing isn't it!  However for Ashton's version he plumped for Hérold's score - but only after John Lanchbery had incorporated bits of other scores into it!

The production also incorporates Osbert Lancaster's original storybook designs which add to the charm of the overall ballet.  The story couldn't be simpler: farm girl Lise is in love with farmer Colas but her mother Widow Simone wants her to marry the rich twit Alain - will true love win out?  Like, duh!

Ashton's choreography has a wonderful timeless quality to it which provided plenty of scope for little moments that give the principal's the chance to flesh out their roles so, even if it is a flimsy prospect on the page, in performance the dancers create vibrant characters.

Of course it also helps to have marvellous dancers in the main roles and we were lucky to have the spirited partnership of Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova as Colas and Lise.  Neither were offstage for very long and their solos and duets were full of the joy and delight of young love.  They fully deserved the huge ovation they received at their curtain call.

The last time we saw Thomas Whitehead on the stage of Covent Garden it was as the brooding lecherous husband in THE INVITATION but here he was great fun as the Widow Simone; Dan Leno as Widow Twankey reborn.  It's not often that you hear laughter in the Covent Garden auditorium but his delightful clog dance with four farm girls was worth the price of admission alone!

There was also a nice supporting performance from James Hay as the dopey Alain, forever clutching his beloved red umbrella to him.  Oh and a special mention to Peregrine the pony for a perfectly performed solo!

The ensemble provided excellent support - even the ballerina who slipped during one of the big company numbers.  I suspect her pride was hurt more than anything else.

The real star however was Frederick Ashton's gloriously romantic choreography and I suspect this delicious rustic classic will be in the repertoire for years to come.

A timeless treasure....


Saturday, October 15, 2016

NO'S KNIFE at the Old Vic - Bleak Beckett

One of the most thrilling theatrical events last year was seeing Lisa Dwan performing the three Beckett monologues NOT I, FOOTFALLS and ROCKABY, so when it was announced that she was going to appear this month at the Old Vic in Beckett's NO'S KNIFE I was very keen to see it.

After a particularly awful week - including walking out of the dreadful TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at the Globe - boy, did I want to drown in Beckett's particular brand of existential nihilism.  NO'S KNIFE didn't disappoint in that respect, but maybe it did in other ways.

Lisa Dwan doesn't make things easy for either herself or us - NO'S KNIFE is a 70 minute monologue which is based on a collection of Beckett's writings published in 1967 under the title TEXTS FOR NOTHING.

In five 'movements', a voice calls out from another place, of the earth but not of the earth; possibly beneath the earth, buried in a peat bog, by turns wheedling, aggressive, plaintive, argumentative, lonely, lost.  That voice is personified by Dwan, who is first seen squeezed into a crack in a rocky landscape, then appearing, Lear-like, on a blasted heath.  She then appears floating above the stage and finally walks down from the stage to address us close-up.

She is a mesmerizing actress who knows how to hold an audience, but dear God, most of the Old Vic audience felt they should make it an interactive event; every time the lights dimmed to signal the end of a particular 'act' off they went: COUGH HACK SPLUTTER COUGH COUGH... it was utterly absurd and totally disrespectful to Dwan.

Co-directed by Dwan and Joe Murphy, the production had a haunting other-worldly look from both set designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and their vision was also helped by a mood-setting video piece from Andrzej Goulding...

...but, but, but... why did it leave me cold whereas NOT I, FOOTFALLS and ROCKABY totally gripped me?  I think the answer is somewhere in the fact that these texts were never really meant to be performed in the theatre.  Beckett wrote them as literary pieces although he did allow them to be read on radio in 1974 by Beckett stalwart Patrick Magee, in a hushed non-theatrical style.

Beckett was an individual playwright, everything distilled down to the absolute essence but more importantly, he wrote them to be presented in the theatre for a reason.  I am sure if Beckett had wanted these writings to be theatrical he would have made them so; this had the vague feeling of "let's do these to give Lisa Dwan another chance to do Beckett monologues on stage".  We were there to listen but not to see.

Dwan is such a remarkable performer however that she made the enterprise worthwhile - I wonder when she will get around to HAPPY DAYS?

Monday, October 10, 2016

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at Sam Wanamaker Theatre - a new low in lows...

In the 34 years that I have been a proper theatregoer I have, naturally, seen some bad productions but I have never left a show in the interval of my own accord - yes I left Kate Mitchell's UNCLE VANYA at the Young Vic at the interval but that was at the prompting of my friend Jane who had bought the tickets for my birthday; she said she would rather buy me dinner at the late and great Alfred's on Shaftesbury Avenue.  So, Linus Roache as UNCLE VANYA or Alfred's summer pudding?  Absolutely no-brainer.

Apropos, here are some Shakespeare productions that had me chewing my programme in anger, frustration or boredom:  The National Theatre's recent AS YOU LIKE IT which I blogged was "a superficial production where the set and cast were all surface with no real insight offered or found", the National's 2011 TWELFTH NIGHT directed by Sir Peter Hall and starring his daughter where I thought "Time and again Rebecca Hall give us true moments of jaw-dropping thinness"There was Ian Rickson's 2011 HAMLET at the Young Vic when I blogged that it "all smacked of a 1970s theatre collective production" and, showing that the Old Vic can put on ghastly Shakespeare too, the truly bizarre MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING from 2013 mis-directed by Mark Rylance where I blogged "I didn't hate it.  It just left me bemused and frustrated that it was allowed to be presented as such". But despite all the above, at least I stayed till the curtain call.

Then last week this happened...

Yes Constant Reader, I left in the interval.  It was either that or lose my sanity.

Thank you Nick Bagnall - your ghastly production has done what no other director has ever made me do.  THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is rarely produced so here was the perfect chance to see it.  But no... I had reckoned without Nick Bagnall deciding to set it in the Swinging 1960s.  His reason?  Because the play is about young people discovering life and they did that in 1966, oh and he is 'obsessed' with the 1960s.  Thankfully the programme had a synopsis which I had to read at the end of the first act as this awful production was so confusing and ghastly.

Owen hit the nail on the head when he said it felt like a production the Upper Sixth had been allowed to put on as part of their drama studies.  This is actually a touring production for the Globe and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.  It should have stayed beyond the pale.

Bagnall had the whizzer idea of stopping the action every so often with cod-60s music...  if he wanted to stage a musical version of the play, why not go for the 1971 Broadway musical that won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book?

The cast were woeful but special mention must be made of Garry Cooper who played the nasty Duke of Milan like the Geoff Tracy "Thunderbirds" puppet operated by someone with Parkinsons.  A more ugly performance it would be hard to imagine.

The cast were grindingly amateur and I hope to never see them on a London stage ever again.

However the main culprit for this theatrical cesspit is the Globe's éminence merde Emma Rice.  Her ghastly stamp is all over this and it fits in nicely with her reductive ethos: strip everything down to the barest minimum, cross-cast with untalented performers who however are the right gender or race to fit your Politically-Correct check list, make it understandable to anyone with no brain, distract with colour and noise to disguise the paucity of soul or emotion - oh and ramp up the mugging so it feels like New York in the 1970s.

Emma Rice has called her first season Wonder... 

I Wonder if I will ever go back to the Globe as long as her shiteous reign lasts.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

KENNY MORGAN at the Arcola Theatre - art imitating art imitating life...

In June we saw Terence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA at the National Theatre, the play that is acknowledged to be his masterpiece.  A reason for this could possibly be because the story came from an incident in his own life.  What Rattigan did however was to do something he could not do in real life... he could change the ending.

Mike Poulton does not have that luxury as his new acclaimed play KENNY MORGAN documents the incident Rattigan could only change in fiction.

Kenneth Morgan was a young actor who in 1940 won a Best Newcomer award for his role in the film of Terence Rattigan's stage success FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS but more importantly he met Rattigan during the filming and they became friends.

They met again after WW2 ended and started a relationship but this was the 1940s and Rattigan was terrified that his homosexuality would become common knowledge.  Not only was homosexuality a criminal act but he also was worried his aged parents would find out.  Rattigan's sexuality was known to his theatrical friends but that was all.  Rattigan lived at the Albany near Piccadilly Circus but he also had the lease for a small flat on another floor which was used for visiting friends and that's where Morgan had to stay when he visited.

Morgan's career had lost it's momentum and he was depressed by his life as the famous writer's secret affair so, while Rattigan was preparing his Alexander The Great play ADVENTURE STORY, Morgan ended the relationship and went to live with another actor Alec Ross in Camden.  Rattigan was upset but assumed Morgan would return.  He did not.  It soon became clear that Ross did not return Morgan's feelings and at the end of his tether, Morgan gassed himself.

Rattigan was in Liverpool with the play's director Peter Glenville when he heard the news and was profoundly shocked but by the evening he envisioned the start of a play where a body was found in front of a gas fire.  It's interesting that Rattigan immediately started to re-write Morgan's fate in theatrical terms as a way of dealing with it.

Poulton's play uses the plot of THE DEEP BLUE SEA as his template but changes a main fact: Rattigan was not in London when Morgan died but Poulton has him making three appearances.  Like THE DEEP BLUE SEA, the play covers the day and night after a suicide attempt with various characters coming and going, attempting to discover what drove the main character to that action, an action that in 1949 was in itself a criminal act; in Poulton's programme notes he estimates that in 1949, 300 people were charged with attempting to kill themselves.

It would appear that in real-life Morgan was successful at his first attempt but to fit the DEEP BLUE SEA narrative, Poulton has him being found in the morning slumped by the gas fire by a neighbour and the landlady and as in Rattigan's play, the neighbour calls a number in a found address book - in the play it's Hester's husband, here it's the playwright.  Also as in the original, Morgan is helped by another neighbour, a European former doctor, struck off under mysterious circumstances.

Also as in the original, Morgan attempts to hide his suicide letter from Alec but it is found which triggers the start of Alec's emotional cruelty and the end of their affair.  In the Rattigan's version, Hester finally sees a chance of redemption after a long talk with the doctor, in this version that chance is also offered through the doctor's appeal to life but one last twist of the knife by Alec destroys Kenny's optimism and he reaches for the gas tap again...

I am still in two minds whether it was a good thing to have seen THE DEEP BLUE SEA so recently: it was good to see how Poulton not only uses Rattigan's structure but also to see how he has referenced certain moments and individual lines in his own play but manipulated them to give it a new meaning.  However I also feel that having THE DEEP BLUE SEA so fresh in one's mind, Poulton's play can only come across as an inferior copy; surely Morgan's despair felt more painful than a copy of a well-constructed play?  It almost felt like a dramatist's exercise - can you write a new play based on the structure of an older one?  Occasionally I wished Poulton could have broken away from THE DEEP BLUE SEA to make us feel Morgan's distress more intently.

There is also a problem with the character of Kenny himself; by writing him as a self-pitying lachrymose gay victim, speaking in the clipped manner of a 1940s juvenile lead, Poulton does make it hard to feel any sympathy for him which is the play's chief failing.  The frequent traffic on the small Arcola stage also felt a bit too mechanical at times: it felt that Poulton was too interested in his characters to leave any of them offstage for long - did Rattigan really need to appear three times?

However I did enjoy the play very much, as well as Lucy Bailey's production which concentrated all the attention on that cramped living room like a pressure-cooker; the flat's design by Robert Innes Hopkins had just the right down-at-heel, drab feel.

Bailey also elicits nuanced performances from her cast: Paul Keating as Kenny had to struggle with the strait-jacketed character of Kenny but was very effective in his scenes in extremis especially when Alec destroyed his last chance of escape with his withering scorn, you could almost see the light go out in him.

As the men in Kenny's life, Simon Dutton was fine as Terence Rattigan, caring for Kenny in his own way but unable to get past his closeted outlook and Piero Niel-Mee was marvellously self-absorbed as Alec, retreating into his bi-sexuality when Kenny's love becomes too suffocating.

Circling these main characters were well-drawn roles that put gentle spins on Rattigan's own supporting characters: Matthew Bulgo was a delight as Kenny's upstairs neighbour, the mild-mannered Dafydd who works in an office job in the Admiralty, lives with his sister and who knows his life is quietly slipping by unnoticed, Marlene Sideaway was good as Mrs. Simpson, the spiky landlady who cares in her way but is suspicious of Kenny and his 'theatrical' ways.

Lowenna Melrose made an impression as Norma Hastings, a young actress friend of Alec who he sleeps with as if to prove to Kenny that he is not gay; Melrose nicely suggested that she was no fool where Alec was concerned.  Rounding out the cast was George Irving as the mysterious neighbour Mr Ritter, a man nursing his past with a quick, sly wit and canny understanding.  His accent strayed occasionally into Mittel-Europeanspeak but he was excellent in his arguments for life to be lived, even the bleak times.

Apart from the problem of Poulton's too-slavish adherence to the structure of THE DEEP BLUE SEA, this was well worth seeing and it would be nice if it had a life beyond it's current run.  It is also a telling reminder of the crushing strictures that the law imposed during that period on the lives of, what Tennessee Williams called "the fugitive kind".