Wednesday, May 17, 2017

MAYERLING at Covent Garden: Kenneth MacMillan's Obsessional Classic...

Mystery still hangs over the deaths in 1889 of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera in the Imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling.  He was 30 and she was 17, and as soon as their bodies were found a cover-up started to protect both the Hapsburg Empire and the image of the happily-married Prince.  The story has been told several times on film but Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 ballet MAYERLING for the Royal Ballet casts a gripping spell.


Needless to say the reality in 1889 was anything but what was reported at the time.  History has revealed Rudolf to be a morbid death-obsessed womanizer who at the time of his death was riddled with syphilis and addicted to morphine.  His politically expedient marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium left both miserable but his request that they separate was refused by his father Emperor Franz Josef - an act of gross hypocrisy as his father and mother, the Empress Elizabeth, lived fairly separate lives with their own lovers.

A former mistress of Rudolf was Empress Elizabeth's niece and lady-in-waiting Countess Marie Larisch who was a friend of Mary Vetsera's mother, and these two women who both craved advancement at court, actively promoted Rudolf's attraction to young Mary.  She was a wilful, highly-strung teenager passionately in love with her Prince Charming (as she saw him) and would do anything for The Grand Gesture.  That came on 31st January, three months after their meeting, when they were both found dead in his bedroom.


Marie left a letter full of fateful talk of them going into an uncertain beyond but they were going together.  Needless to say, this was the last thought on the Hapsburg Empire's collective mind after their bodies were found: Mary's uncles were summoned to Mayerling and, propping her up between them in a carriage, was buried immediately in a nearby monastery cemetery, while Rudolf was mourned as having died from a heart rupture. Eventually a version of the murder/suicide was released but with the emphasis that the Prince's mind was deranged so the church allowed for his body to be buried in the Hapsburg burial crypt.

Kenneth MacMillan's brooding masterpiece opens with a moonlit burial, only when it is repeated at the end do we know this is the hasty funeral of pathetic Mary Vetsera.  The ballet flashbacks to the wedding of Rudolf and Princess Stephanie but unsettling undercurrents swirl around the court as Stephanie is terrorized by the crazed Rudolf in their room.  The second act has Rudolf making his wife accompany him as he tours the taverns drinking and womanizing, Stephanie leaving in distress when he dances with his ex-lover Mitzi Caspar who eventually hides him from a police raid; meanwhile Countess Larisch visits Mary and her mother and tricks the girl into believing that her destiny is to be Rudolf's lover.  The act ends with the first tumultuous lovemaking of Rudolf and Mary.


The third act opens with a shooting party where Rudolf shoots a courtier dead who is standing near the Emperor (an incident that happened in reality) and while the Empress discerns the hand of Countess Larisch in the relationship, Mary and Rudolf decide on their fate.  At Mayerling, the Prince's servant tries to entertain the couple as he has done before but stops when he realizes the couple are totally self-absorbed, fatally leaving the couple alone...

39 years after it's debut performance MacMillan's ballet is a darkly glittering masterwork; a driven, haunting work of tortured sexuality that leads inexorably to the grave.  It's fascinating that MacMillan ends the first and second acts with Rudolf having violent sex but whereas the first act has Stephanie manhandled by Rudolf and cowering as he brandishes a revolver, in the second act Rudolf finds Mary a match for him, a match made in a dangerously out-of-control place.  MacMillan's extraordinary choreography is still a hypnotic, thrilling thing to see.


The ballet, which is based on a scenario by Gillian Freeman, has been re-staged by Christopher Saunders, Grant Coyle and Karl Burnett and uses the original designs by the late Nicholas Georgiades.  The lead roles of Rudolf and Mary were danced by Thiago Soares and Lauren Cuthbertson, and while Cuthbertson brought the wildly passionate teenager to vivid and thrilling life I found Soares to be quite uncharismatic and almost lumpen, I can only imagine the electric quality that more live-wire performers like Edward Watson and Steven McRae would bring to the role.

There was much more to be enjoyed in the supporting roles: Yuhui Choe played the distressed Stephanie well while Claire Calvert was a vibrantly sensual Mitzi Caspar, the real-life mistress of Rudolf who reported him to the authorities when he suggested a suicide pact.  I enjoyed Tristan Dyer as the Prince's servant Bratfisch who has a delightful solo in the tavern and whose faltering repeat of it at Mayerling was very touching.  However they were all outshone by the always watchable Itziar Mendizabal as the devious Countess Marie Larisch, the go-between for the lovers. 


In real life, Countess Marie was ostracized by Empress Elizabeth when her involvement in the deaths was revealed and she led a peripatetic life, marrying often and living in various countries, always trying to make money off of her involvement with the Hapsburg royalty.

MAYERLING was wonderful to see and stands as a tribute to the remarkable choreographic genius of Kenneth MacMillan, who tragically died of a heart-attack backstage at Covent Garden during a revival performance of the ballet in 1992.

Monday, May 15, 2017

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Harold Pinter Theatre: Let battle commence...

There is no stopping Imelda Staunton; where other leading ladies will play one of the big stonking parts then have some time off to recuperate, Imelda is knocking them out of the park one after the other.

Mrs Lovett in Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD at Chichester and the Adelphi and Margie in David Lindsay-Abaire's GOOD PEOPLE at Hampstead and the Noel Coward Theatre was followed by her titanic Mama Rose in GYPSY at both Chichester and the Savoy.  That's enough to make any other actress sit back in the relative peace of a film or tv studio but Imelda simply squared her shoulders again for battle and has now taken on the corrosive Martha in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Harold Pinter Theatre.


Not that Martha will make Imelda take a rest as when it closes she jumps straight into the National's production of FOLLIES as Sally, another woman on the edge.  Because if there is something that links Nellie Lovett, Margie, Mama Rose and Martha is the fact that they are all women who are just hanging on, racing against time to find some kind of fulfillment or peace.

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? finally confirmed Edward Albee as one of America's leading playwrights in 1962 when it premiered on Broadway but even it's huge success could not win it the Pulitzer Prize that year as it was judged "too filthy"!  He was later to go on and win three of them for A DELICATE BALANCE, SEASCAPE and THREE TALL WOMEN. Of course the intense screen version of VIRGINIA WOOLF only confirmed it's status along with winning a second Academy Award for Elizabeth Taylor and launching the career of director Mike Nichols.


I last saw it on stage in Anthony Page's 2007 production which transferred from Broadway with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as Martha and George but it is good to see it again to be reminded of the explosive nature of Albee's writing and the stagecraft involved in keeping us hooked on the lives of four people over it's relatively real-time length.

It's a play where the balance of power tips drunkenly between it's two main protagonists: George and Martha are a married couple living on the campus of a college which is run by Martha's father and where George is an associate professor in the history department.  Their life together has settled into one of weary recriminations and barely-hidden resentments.


In the small hours of the night following a party to welcome the new intake of teachers, Martha invites a new couple back for a drink much to George's exasperation.  Nick, who is due to start teaching biology, arrives with his gauche wife Honey and the scene is set for George and Martha to slowly draw the new couple into their private hell.  Honey is a pushover but Nick rises to the challenge until he too shows his true nature.  As the new day dawns, a line is crossed and life will never be the same for George and Martha...

What one forgets is how funny the play is - one remembers the vicious insults but George's barbed needled comments and Martha's gimlet-eyed insults are there in abundance too.  Of course there are occasional longueurs during the three hour running time but Albee needs to sometimes bring it down to a simmering level for the explosions to pay off later.


Director James Macdonald - to keep the cooking analogy just a bit further - has the pressure cooker atmosphere going throughout as George the turtle outpaces Martha the hare; she might have knocked him out in a pretend boxing-match in front of her father but George now knows that in a war of attrition it's who's left standing at the end of all the battles that claims victory. 

But what victory is there to be won in this match?  Both George and Martha face an uncertain future at the end of the play with their once-secret prop now gone, but Albee does suggest that in the cold grey dawn there might just be a chance of a new life together.  The third act is called The Exorcism after all...


Macdonald has Imelda matched perfectly by Coneth Hill, his hangdog expression and sagging-sofa posture hiding a gladiator tried and tested in the field of marital combat.  Although they both have their moments I was less impressed with Luke Treadaway's Nick or Imogen Poots as Honey.  Her lack of stage experience showed up opposite her three colleagues and Treadaway felt too lightweight to convince us of Nick's hidden nasty streak. 

But the night belongs to Conleth Hill and the unstoppable Staunton, her ability to go to the extremes of her character are a wonder to behold, and in the final nerve-shredding moments of the play she draws you to Martha in her loneliness and despair.  "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I am, George. I am"


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

SHAKESPEARE'S BIRTHDAY: TEN BEST FEMALE SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES

Happy birthday to William Shakespeare... born 453 years ago (and died 401 years ago).

Eight years ago I compiled four Top Ten lists of my favourite Shakespeare performances - lead & supporting male and lead & supporting female.

Eight years is a long time in theatre-going so to celebrate the greatest playwright ever, here is my updated list of favourite actresses in key supporting roles; these are the ones that all new interpretations are judged against:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS (in alphabetical order):

 SINEAD CUSACK (Paulina - 2009)

JUDI DENCH (Gertrude - 1989)

JUDI DENCH (Paulina - 2015)

DEBORAH FINDLAY (Paulina - 2001)

ALEXANDRA GILBREATH (Emilia - 2011)
 
 CLARE HIGGINS (Gertrude - 2010)

HELEN McCRORY (Olivia - 2002)

VANESSA REDGRAVE (Queen Margaret - 2016)

JULIET STEVENSON (Gertrude - 2017)

SOPHIE THOMPSON (Ophelia - 1988)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

SHAKESPEARE'S BIRTHDAY: TEN BEST MALE SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES

Happy birthday to William Shakespeare... born 453 years ago (and died 401 years ago).

Eight years ago I compiled four Top Ten lists of my favourite Shakespeare performances - lead & supporting male and lead & supporting female.

Eight years is a long time in theatre-going so to celebrate the greatest playwright ever, here is my updated list of favourite actors in key supporting roles; these are the ones that all new interpretations are judged against:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (in alphabetical order):

 MICHAEL BRYANT (Polonius - 1989)

RON COOK (Lear's Fool - 2010)

FINBAR LYNCH (Edmund - 1997)

DEREK NEWARK (Bottom - 1983)

ADRIAN SCARBOROUGH (Lear's Fool - 2014)

 JACK SHEPHERD (Puck - 1983)

ANTONY SHER (Lear's Fool - 1983)

STANLEY TOWNSEND (Kent - 2014)

PETER WIGHT (Polonius - 2017)

CLIVE WOOD (Edmund - 1983)

SHAKESPEARE'S BIRTHDAY: TEN BEST FEMALE PERFORMANCES

Happy birthday to William Shakespeare... born 453 years ago (and died 401 years ago).

Eight years ago I compiled four Top Ten lists of my favourite Shakespeare performances - lead & supporting male and lead & supporting female.

Eight years is a long time in theatre-going - although I have added only one new female lead performance - so to celebrate the greatest playwright ever, here is my updated list of favourite lead actresses and their performances in key roles; these are the ones that all new interpretations are judged against:

BEST ACTRESS (in alphabetical order):

 BRENDA BLETHYN (Helena - 1983)

 SUSAN FLEETWOOD (Titania - 1983)

GLENDA JACKSON (King Lear - 2016)

GERALDINE JAMES (Portia - 1989)

VANESSA REDGRAVE (Cleopatra - 1986)

VANESSA REDGRAVE (Katharina - 1986)

EMMA THOMPSON (Helena - 1990)

SOPHIE THOMPSON (Rosalind - 1990)

SOPHIE THOMPSON (Isabella - 2004)

ZOE WANAMAKER (Beatrice - 2008)

Monday, April 24, 2017

SHAKESPEARE'S BIRTHDAY: TEN BEST MALE PERFORMANCES

Happy birthday to William Shakespeare... born 453 years ago (and died 401 years ago).

Eight years ago I compiled four Top Ten lists of my favourite Shakespeare performances - lead & supporting male and lead & supporting female.

Eight years is a long time in theatre-going so to celebrate the greatest playwright ever, here is my updated list of favourite lead actors and their performances in key roles; these are the ones that all new interpretations are judged against.

BEST ACTOR (in alphabetical order):

 SIMON RUSSELL BEALE (King Lear - 2014)

  SIMON RUSSELL BEALE (Iago - 1997)

 IAN CHARLESON (Hamlet - 1989)

 RALPH FIENNES (Richard III - 2016)

 HENRY GOODMAN (Shylock - 1999)

 IAN HOLM (King Lear - 1997)

 DEREK JACOBI (King Lear - 2010)

 RORY KINNEAR (Hamlet - 2010)

 IAN McKELLEN (Richard III - 1990)

 JONATHAN PRYCE (Shylock - 2015)