Thursday, March 22, 2018

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT at the Wyndhams Theatre - The Long Day Closes

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY is easy to admire, but harder to love.  My two previous experiences of seeing it on stage have given certain memorable moments but the play itself has remained a rambling, shapeless beast, over 3 hours long and full of repetitions and longueurs.  But Richard Eyre might have changed that perception...

I think I have seen the ten most famous plays by Eugene O'Neill - maybe I need to see DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS too - but all have been seen with a vague sense of duty attached; I have been conscious of seeing Great Plays in the Canon: ANNA CHRISTIE, THE EMPEROR JONES, THE HAIRY APE, STRANGE INTERLUDE, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, AH WILDERNESS!, THE ICEMAN COMETH, A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, A TOUCH OF THE POET... there would have to be some seriously great actors in revivals of these plays to get me to see them again.

Of all the O'Neill plays I have seen, as I said before, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is the one I have returned to most often: I saw Jonathan Miller's 1986 Haymarket Theatre revival with Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher, then in 2000 I saw the late Robin Phillips' version with Charles Dance, Jessica Lange, Paul Rudd, Paul Nicholls - and an unknown actress called Olivia Colman as the Irish maid!  Now here I was... back for another long night in the Tyrone family home on the lonely Connecticut coast.

The monumental play is remarkable when you consider that O'Neill was already suffering the onset of the Parkinson's-related illness which would over the next ten years slowly rob him of the capability to write anything at all.  It's intriguing that the more he was being robbed of the ability to write he turned inwards to write plays where his own alcoholic struggles were reflected, and with JOURNEY, the corrosive feelings he had for his family.

1912: The Tyrone family are staying in their summer house on the Connecticut coast, haunted by the sound of fog horns through the night.  Although all looks well in the morning, by night time all their resentments and secrets will be aired and possibly be unrepairable.  James Tyrone once was an actor of promise but has for many years made a lot of money touring a star vehicle that has kept him in work but never fulfilled his dream of being a great tragedian.  Although he speculates in buying property, he is miserly with money for his family.

His wife Mary harbours a deep resentment for her husband's forcing them all to go on the road with him living out of cheap hotels.  She has never got over the death from measles of a son while touring, and resents her eldest son Jamie who she feels passed it on deliberately.  A difficult birth with her youngest son resulted in her being medicated with morphine, by the cheap doctor Tyrone paid for, to which she has since become addicted.  Their two sons are also caught in misery: Jamie is also an actor but struggles to find work as he is becoming an alcoholic while younger Edmund aspires to be a poet but is succumbing to crippling tuberculosis, again exacerbated by Tyrone's unwillingness to spend money on an expensive sanatorium.

Despite Mary's strenuous attempts to look bright and engaged with the family after being away curing her addiction, her sons slowly come to realize that she has returned to her morphine addiction which over the day becomes more and more evident.  Eventually, the family are lost in the blackness of the night and their existence, forced to watch as Mary appears, once again a morphine addict but remembering her days as a convent girl and her wish to become a nun but she "fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time."

Eugene O'Neill's father was also a touring actor, forever touring a stage version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO which earned him money but at a loss of any interest as an actor, his mother was raised in a convent and was addicted to morphine after the difficult birth of her third son, his eldest brother Jamie died from alcoholism and he himself spent time in a TB sanatorium.  Having exorcised his family demons when he finished the play in 1941, O'Neill sat on it until he gave it to his publishers in 1945, on the strict instruction that it not be performed until 25 years after his death.

He died in 1953 but his third wife Carlotta went against his wishes and allowed it to be performed only 3 years afterward in Sweden.  The play premiered on Broadway later that year with Fredric March in the lead role where it won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as for O'Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, his fourth in all.  The first London production appeared in 1958 with Anthony Quayle as Tyrone.  And here we are 60 years later...

Richard Eyre has directed this production with a purity of vision that also was evident in GHOSTS, his last collaboration with Lesley Manville.  Although 3 hours 30 minutes it was only towards the end that one became aware of the time, the scene between the two sons having just a few repetitions too many.  Eyre has subtly brought out the fact that the Tyrones, despite everything, are still together and you do feel that the four members of the family do all love each other - the tragedy is that they all seem to give it the wrong way.

Eyre is reunited with his GHOSTS lighting designer Peter Mumford who draws us through the day to the darkening night and Rob Howell's wonderful set for the summer home puts us right in the centre of the Tyrone's world: the semi-transparent walls reflecting a house where there are no secrets held from others even if you are behind closed doors.

Light relief is provided by Jessica Regan as Cathleen, the local Irish girl employed as the Tyrone's maid; it's a bit of a hackneyed comedy Oirish role but Regan soon has you laughing with her than at her.  Matthew Beard and Rory Keenan were both very good as Edmund and Jamie, the damaged sons of the Tyrone's bad blood, both wishing to escape but unable to draw themselves away from the family quagmire.

Jeremy Irons was an interesting choice as Tyrone: not as obviously dominant as others who have played the role - David Suchet, Charles Dance, Jack Lemmon, Brian Dennehy, Jason Robards Jr, Gabriel Byrne, Laurence Olivier - but he played him with the distracted air of a man forced to engage with three family members who have all disappointed him.  Irons rose to the challenge of the scene where Tyrone explains to Edmund the joy he had as a young actor in being singled out for praise by the great Edwin Booth and his lilting, flowery speaking of Shakespeare conjured up a bygone day of performing.  He also was able to turn on the cutting, sniping anger of a man unused to having to give ground.  It's just a shame Irons' American accent was as drifting as the Connecticut fog outside.

The evening belonged to Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone, she was quite magnificent.  Starting off girlishly happy and shy at her recent weight gain from her time in the sanitarium, she charted Mary's eventual decline during the day with a deadly accuracy: her skittish behaviour, her sudden flare-ups of resentful anger, her circling around the room edging ever-closer to the stairs that led to her secret supply of morphine, her coquettish dissembling "Is my hair coming down?" when meeting the stares of her all-too-aware family and finally her withdrawn stare as she looks out at her unhappy life while remembering the young girl who fell in love with a handsome actor.  She also conveyed effortlessly that Mary is not without guilt in the way her sons have been damaged emotionally by the Tyrone family life, so giving us a fully-rounded character.

The remarkable thing about O'Neill's writing is that by the end of the play you are so invested in them on a human level that you can only hope that life gives them all another chance, as slim as that seems in the dark night.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

DVD/150: LA LEY DEL DESEO (Law of Desire) (Pedro Almodóvar, 1987)

Here it is, the film that started it all when I saw it thirty years ago...  "A Spanish John Waters" I was assured (along with a free ticket) but I was completely swept away by the sensory overload of Almodóvar's cinematic vision... 

Pablo is a successful film director in 1980s Madrid with a younger lover Juan but doubts his commitment; his main emotional support is his exuberant transsexual sibling Tina - she was once his brother but eloped with their father to Morocco who left Tina after her sex-change.

Tina and Pablo dote on Ada, the young daughter of Tina's absent lesbian lover but their lives are thrown into danger when Pablo picks up a young obsessive fan Antonio.

When Antonio murders Juan, Pablo and Tina face his law of desire...

Excellent performances from Eusebio Poncela and Antonio Banderas are dwarfed by Carmen Maura's stunning, career-defining performance as Tina.

Shelf or charity shop?  One of my favourite films of all time...  as long as I have a shelf, it stays on it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

SUMMER AND SMOKE at the Almeida Theatre - Body and Soul...

Playwright Tennessee Williams' golden years can be bracketed between 1944 with the astonishing success of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, and the 1963 critical and commercial failure of THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE - twelve plays in nineteen years which challenged the American theatre to look again at the way those of 'the fugitive kind' survive the cruelties of life and love.

Of those twelve main plays, there are only two I have not yet seen: CAMINO REAL (1953) and PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT (1960) - a rare Williams comedy - because, thanks to the Almeida Theatre, I can now add SUMMER AND SMOKE to my 'seen' list.

SUMMER AND SMOKE premiered on Broadway in 1948, a year after A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but only ran three months, STREETCAR ran for two years!  It was directed by Margo Jones, who had made a name for herself in US regional theatre and been an exponent of theatre-in-the-round.  She had co-directed the original production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE and she lobbied for the director role on SUMMER AND SMOKE.  However the rehearsal period was very troubled resulting in Williams and the cast losing all faith in her.

Off-Broadway director José Quintero staged a revival in 1952 at the Circle In The Square which was well-received and launched the career of actress Geraldine Page: she won a Drama Desk award and, when she recreated her role in the 1961 film version, was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.  Williams' returned to the story in 1964, rewriting it as THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE but by the time it was staged in the 1970s, Williams was out of fashion and it ran 20 performances.  Amazingly SUMMER AND SMOKE took nearly sixty years to reach London but it only ran for 6 weeks in the West End, unsurprising with the glacial Rosamund Pike in the lead.

But 12 years later, SUMMER AND SMOKE has reappeared at the Almeida Theatre in a re-imagined production which initially threw me but by the interval I was totally hooked.  Director Rebecca Frecknall has come over all Ivo van Hove and has designer Tom Scutt impose an idiosyncratic visual look to Wiliams' play set in pre-1916 Mississippi but the totally stripped-down playing area distills the action to just the actor and the words; the only furniture are nine stand-up pianos that line up in a semi-circle at the back of the stage with their hardback chairs.

Alma Winemiller lives in the incongruously-named small town of Glorious Hill, the highly-strung daughter of the town's straight-laced minister and his demented wife.  She has grown up across the street from John Buchanan, the virile son of the town doctor, and her unrequited passion for him has been unwavering since school when she embarrassed him with a present of handkerchiefs.  Alma's neurasthenia leads her to have breathless palpitations which means she visits the doctor at all hours but Alma and John, while on friendly terms, cannot give each other what they need.  

Alma, a music teacher who holds raggedy literary 'salons', seeks a spiritual connection - she delights in telling everyone she meets that Alma is Spanish for 'soul' - but John is bored with his medical studies and wants life and excitement which he finds regularly in the Latino quarter outside town, especially at the casino on Moon Lake owned by Pablo Gonzales whose daughter Rosa he is involved with.  Alma's choking primness and nervous mannerisms cannot compete with Rosa's lush sensuality and, after a disastrous date at the casino, the die is cast for them.

Dr. Buchanan leaves to help with an outbreak of fever so John throws a wild party at the surgery to celebrate his engagement to Rosa; a jealous Alma contacts his father who returns to angrily confront the drunken Pablo who draws a gun...  an event that leads to Alma collapsing physically and mentally.  By the time she recovers, the momentous summer is over and life has changed forever: John has taken over his father's work, has renounced his former ways and is engaged to Nellie, one of Alma's singing pupils.  Alma realizes that her former attitudes have made her miss out on engaging with life and love:
'The girl who said 'no' — she doesn't exist anymore, she died last summer — suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.'

By stripping the action of all distractions, director Rebecca Frecknall draws you into the lives of John and, in particular, Alma and, while she cannot make much of Williams' 2nd Act melodramatic plot turn, she elicits strong performances from her cast of eight - I didn't even mind the Director Theatre shtick of the cast plonking the pianos for atmosphere...  Frecknall made the scenes between Alma and John crackle with tension, in particular the Act 1 scene where he listened to her heartbeat then held her wrist to check her pulse was played to a silence from the audience, gripped by the action.

There are some standout performances: Anjana Vasan was vibrant playing the contrasting roles of Rosa and Nellie, Nancy Crane was good as Alma's deranged mother as well as the gossipy Mrs. Bassett, and Seb Carrington was particularly good as Archie Kramer, the lonely travelling salesman who Alma meets in the darkening town park under the statue of the angel; an ending which is left nicely ambiguous... will it lead to Alma engaging in life positively or negatively?

Matthew Needham played the role of John well, you suspect that Williams wrote a sounding-board for Alma to be play against than a fully-rounded character but Needham showed both the reckless side of the bored medical student as well as the chastened older John who assumes responsibility with his father's death.

But the play belongs to the actress who plays Alma and Patsy Ferran is inspired casting.  Her slightly 'other' quality works in her favour here; you totally believe that her Alma is unable to fit in to the straightened society of Glorious Hill and the weight of her repressed home life is excellently suggested.  Ferran's quality of stillness here illuminates her character and she negotiates Alma's journey well, despite Williams' tendency to overdo Alma's misfit itchiness.  Ferran starts the play with an extended asthma-style panic attack which really pitches you into the character - as well as being an endurance test for her right at the top of the show.

Alma sits interestingly between two of Williams' previous characters: the over-protected and shy Laura from THE GLASS MENAGERIE and the neurotic gentility of STREETCAR's Blanche - another teacher who has embraced life too dangerously.

Although the play is not the best of Williams' canon - the obvious repetition of the soul (Alma) and the body (John) begin to clang after a while - I am so glad to have finally see it in a production which shows it off to it's fullest potential.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

MACBETH at the Olivier Theatre... Mad Macbeth

Going in to see Rufus Norris' new production of MACBETH at the Olivier Theatre it struck me that, having seen the play four times previously on stage, I had yet to see one that I found fully satisfactorily.  I still haven't...

During the opening I found myself thinking of RuPaul's command before the final lip-sync competition on RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE "DON'T fuck it up"... It was a waste of time, because the fucking up appeared to have occured some time before I arrived.  Once again - and it is happening with increasing regularity - I sat there thinking 'why couldn't anyone have spoken up during either the rehearsals or tech run and said "Is it me or is this shite not working"?

As with Nicholas Hytner's JULIUS CAESAR playing further down the Thames at The Bridge, any onstage cutting and stabbing has been matched offstage by the filleting of sections of Shakespeare's text.  Why this is done so often now is beyond me - a misguided attempt to just focus on the main characters?  An attempt to streamline the action to fit it into a certain concept or running time?  Both productions were attended by several school groups - what does the teacher say to the pupils when they study the text next: "You can skip the next page, Nicholas Hytner says it's surplus to requirements", or "Eye of newt, and toe of frog? Don't bother with that, Rufus Norris says it's expendable."

Rufus Norris certainly has a concept... and boy, is it driven home with relentless monotony.  Designer Rae Smith has conjured up a relentlessly ugly vision of a dystopian wasteland, a mostly bare stage is dominated by a large sloped walkway that wanders around the stage like rogue airport boarding stairs which also features a few tall blasted thin trees with ugly plastic fronds atop them.  The bin bag ethic is also featured in large oily-looking drapes that cover most of the stage at times - actually I quite liked them with their suggestion of all-encompassing demonic wings - and this look reaches it's apogee in the bizarre idea that Macbeth's castle has rooms that look like concrete pillboxes with black bin bags piled up in corners.  Go figure...

Costume designer Mauritz Junge has expended no imagination at all: the costumes are drab, ill-fitting fatigues or dirty jeans, vests and clumpy boots usually covered up by shapeless woolly coats.  King Duncan wears a particularly ugly red suit - which of course Macbeth turns up in after Duncan's death - and don't get me started on Lady Macbeth who is obviously allowed a bit of glamour when she becomes Queen and is fitted out with what looks like a handmade red sequined frock of shiteous quality.  It all suggests that Norris lent the creative team a dvd of MAD MAX and said "Something like this maybe...?"

Nothing lifts the murk of James Farncombe's lighting apart from the cold moonlight shafts that illuminate the grimy business or Orlando Gough's clanging music - never more ghastly than in a seriously misjudged 'party' scene where presumably well-brought-up Equity card-holding actors do a mentalist pogo-ing conga round the set, strenuously giving off "WE'RE OFF THE CHAIN, US".

One wonders how the performers will play the remaining shows?  Will they stick to Norris' depressing concept or will they actually try and give performances of character?  The much-vaunted casting of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff fails to generate any heat: it's almost like neither of them wants to pull focus from the other.  In HAMLET, Rory Kinnear displayed a remarkable facility for making the most well-known speeches sound fresh but he is developing a worrying vocal shtick - which was actually effective in Norris' THE THREEPENNY OPERA - of falling into a distressingly fake Mockney accent which he drowns in here, hitting consonants with an exaggerated wallop such as "Is THis a DAgger I SEe BEfore Me" till you want to scream at the stage JUST SPEAK IN YOUR ORDINARY VOICE!  All the more annoying as he calms down for the 'murder of Duncan' sequence and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.

Anne-Marie Duff also disappointed in a performance that hardly made it to where we were sitting at the back of the stalls.  She started promisingly but her performance grew so colourless that I wanted to ask why she didn't assert herself and more importantly her character in the rehearsal room - there are certain Shakespeare female characters that you suspect the Bard simply threw out some scenes because they were too difficult for the boy actors who played them; a good actress will be able to 'fill in' the gaps of Gertrude or Lady Macbeth but Duff sadly lives up to her surname.

She can't even make Lady Macbeth's haunting mad scene anything other than just another drab scene - I could not help but think of when Maggie Smith asked Coral Brown for advice on playing the role as Coral had made a success of it in New York in the 1950s - her advice?  "It's a fucker darling, and remember to keep your eyes open during the sleepwalking scene, for some reason it rivets the fuckers!"  Oh Coral, that you should be alive at this hour.

Other performances fitfully come to life: the always hair-trigger Patrick O'Kane gave us an over-the-top Macduff but was momentarily effecting at his horror at the death of his family, Trevor Fox was a relentlessly Geordie Porter - oh no, Rufus Norris, you couldn't cut the Porter's speech could you? - and Kevin Hardy was an interesting Banquo (despite the scouse accent) until he was called upon to lurch around the stage as Banquo's ghost like a SHAUN OF THE DEAD blob-job performer.

Amaka Okafor was a dignified Lady Macduff and I liked the little that Nicholas Karimi did as Lennox but the three actresses playing the witches were saddled with modern-day "torture porn" horror film persona's and the two actors playing the assassins deserve to be shot for their over-the-top ONLY WAY IS ESSEX chav acting.

To say I was disappointed by this is to put it mildly and it does nothing to stop the creeping suspicion that after the dog shows of SALOMÉ, SAINT GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, COMMON and his own WONDER.LAND, Rufus Norris is clueless about how to use the Olivier stage to it's best advantage.

This is Rufus Norris' first Shakespeare production in 25 years.  It shows.

DVD/150: MATADOR (Pedro Almodóvar, 1986)

Diego is a former matador who runs a bullfighter academy; one of his pupils is insecure Ángel, who sees visions and faints if he sees blood.  Dominated by his pious mother, he attempts to rape Eva, a neighbour who is also Diego's lover. 

Ángel confesses to the police but the detective is intrigued when he confesses to unsolved murders of naked men stabbed in the neck, as well as two missing female pupils from Diego's school.  Lawyer Maria takes up Ángel's defence - but in Hichcockian fashion, we know she is the murderer, and she wants Diego... who is also obsessed with deadly sex.

Almodóvar's film glows with colour even as the mood darkens, Nacho Martinez and Assumpta Serna are a memorable deadly couple while Antonio Banderas shines as Ángel; excellent support from Eusebio Poncela and Pedro alumni Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Julieta Serrano, Veronica Forqué and trans actress Bibi Andersen.

Shelf or charity shop?  Apart from everything else, it's worth keeping for the Assumpta Serna's 80s power-dressing  wardrobe.. Shelf!!

Monday, March 05, 2018

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN at the Vaudeville - Looking at the stars...

Dominic Dromgoole's Classic Spring Theatre Company has been set up to stage the works of great British dramatists from the 19th and 20th Centuries in the theatres where they were first presented.  Their first season is celebrating the work of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre, a theatre Wilde knew well, and after an excellent launch with Dromgoole's own production of A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, we now have LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN, fluttering away in a production directed by Kathy Burke.

Wilde's comedy of manners was first staged in 1892 and has been revived frequently since as well as being the basis for five film versions although it's fair to say that none of these have lived long in the collective memory.  I had only read the play so was keen to experience it properly, although I wondered at the choice of Burke as director.  Luckily I need not have worried as her production has a humanity and warmth to it that one might not expect from Wilde's comedy of shaken morals among the English upper class.

Lord and Lady Windermere have been married for two years and he has given her an expensive fan as a gift for her 21st birthday.  However two titled friends, Lord Darlington and the Duchess of Berwick, spoil her day by telling her that it is the talk of society that her husband has been making secretive visits to Mrs Erlynne, an older woman of scandalous reputation.  The priggishly moral Lady Windermere confronts her husband who admits he has been paying Mrs Erlynne money but says he has not been unfaithful; when he asks her to invite Mrs Erlynne to her birthday ball she refuses, but Windermere invites her anyway.

Mrs Erlynne arrives at the party and causes a sensation but Lady Windermere ignores her.  Alone with Lord Darlington he takes advantage of her upset and invites her to leave her husband for him as Darlington has always secretly loved her.  The confused Lady Windermere refuses and Darlington leaves saying he will leave the country the next day.  However when she sees how her husband stays with Mrs Erlynne and that their family friend 'Tuppy' Lorton is equally smitten with her, Lady Windermere changes her mind and after leaving a note, follows Darlington to his home.

Mrs. Erlynne finds the note but destroys it before the husband can see it; of course that's when we discover that Mrs. Erlynne is actually Lady Windermere's long-presumed-dead mother.  She too fled her husband and baby for another man but when he left her she found herself alone.  Under an assumed name she has returned to London and blackmailed Lord Windermere into bankrolling her to a new start in society.  However now her daughter looks about to repeat her own actions, Mrs. Erlynne will stop at nothing to save her from a life of shame...

I am sure the play could be acted in "the traditional style" - lots of declamatory readings, the cast in frozen tableaux and heavy brocade and Victorian excess everywhere - but Kathy Burke keeps the action souffle-like and it is a production full of air and light.  This is helped immeasurably by designer Paul Wills' stripped-back, simple set and costume designs as well as the chosen colour palette of soft hues of pink, purple and blues - it really makes for a delightful production to watch.

Kathy Burke is also helped with a cast who play with a twinkle in their eye which makes the sudden melodramatic moments seem all the more serious; they also all play with a disregard that they are saying some of Wilde's most memorable lines, there is no signalling to the audience as if to say "You are all going to know what I am about to say..."

After having graduated from drama school only last year, it would be unlikely that Grace Molony's Lady Windermere had any particular depth but she played it with a pleasing sincerity as did Joshua James in the tricky role of Lord Windermere who came into his own in the final scene of compromise and keeping secrets.  I also liked Joseph Marcell as "Tuppy" the Windermere's friend who finds himself besotted with the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne but fearful of her reputation; he played it with just the right air of happy befuddlement.

Kevin Bishop is an interesting choice as Lord Darlington who is another of Wilde's charming but dangerous titled womanizers but he fought the temptation to barnstorm lines like "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" and made him a very subtle cad.

The real surprise - for me at lest - was the delightful performance of Jennifer Saunders as the self-entitled and snobbish Duchess of Berwick, a woman at the centre of her own universe and eager to know all the gossip.  I had fears that she might play it too over the top but she fitted into the tone of the production and seemed very at home within it.  Her character's relatively short appearances onstage is helpfully padded out with the Duchess leading the audience in a front-cloth sing-song.  It actually was interesting to watch her in performance, seeing her ease onstage and delivering her witty rejoinders and put-downs with the sure knowledge of how to land a laugh; Dominic Dromgoole... I think you have found your Lady Bracknell for the upcoming production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. 

Samantha Spiro was an inspired choice as Mrs. Erlynne, sensuous and languidly in command of the men's slavish attentions but able to become passionately sympathetic in defending the daughter she has returned to but realizes will have to leave again without her identity being revealed.  The final scene where she makes her only demand - a photo of her now-grown daughter and grand-child - was played with a lightness of touch which hinted at the emotion beneath.  She really has a uniquely quicksilver personality on stage.

It is impossible to watch any of Wilde's classic plays without looking for clues relating to the downfall that awaited him only three years after the play's premiere, and indeed it is interesting that Wilde wrote of a wife finding out about her husband's clandestine visits to a disreputable woman in the same year that Lord Alfred Douglas started to introduce him to male prostitute 'renters'.  Interesting too that the play's seemingly happy end for the married couple is based on the keeping of secrets from each other.

I highly recommend LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN which runs until April 7th but it will also be screened in cinemas on the 20th March.  Classic Spring's next production is AN IDEAL HUSBAND... and yes Constant Reader, tickets are already booked!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

SATYAGRAHA at the London Coliseum - Sing Out Mahatma!

Amazingly it was 31 years ago that Andrew got me a free ticket to see the English National Opera production of Philip Glass' AKHNATEN at the London Coliseum.  Andrew had been singing it's praises so as it was free I thought I would give it a go... it was one of the most mesmerizing productions I had ever seen and I reeled from the theatre with my senses all a-whirl.  Sadly their 2016 revival I found annoying thanks to the distracting "Director Theatre" tropes of Phelim McDermott.

The good news is that the ENO have revived Glass' earlier installment in his "Portrait Trilogy" SATYAGRAHA.  The bad news is it's directed by Phelim McDermott.  He's not really got any better.

All I knew of the opera was it was based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi - but no, not the famous bit... SATYAGRAHA focuses on his years working as a lawyer in South Africa, from 1910 to 1913.  This saw the beginning of his idea of non-violent protest or 'Satyagraha' as he confronted the ruling powers in their racist persecution of the Indian community.

The libretto is convoluted and even frantic reading between the acts didn't help either - it doesn't help that the opera is sung in Sanskrit and that the sur-titles weren't on.  It later turned out that the phrases that appeared on the back wall were what was being sung.. who knew.  Three incidents are referenced: Gandhi setting up a communal farm named after his literary hero Tolstoy; Gandhi setting up the campaigning newspaper Indian Opinion; Gandhi leading a march of miners and their families to the Transvaal.

As with AKHNATEN, Glass' music is hypnotic and draws you into it's depths, swirling and eddying around until you are swept along again by a shift in the notes.  What annoyed me so much about McDermott's direction was the ball-aching movement he grafts on his performers.  All the singers m-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-v-e at a glacial pace - yes, Glass' music is minimal but hows about moving to the fast-moving beats within it occasionally?  Imagine how exciting that would be Mr McDermott?

The music certainly sounded great, conductor Karen Kamensek was also in the pit for AKHNATEN and again, under her baton, the orchestra made Glass' score glow.  However one feels that McDermott has concentrated all his efforts onto the visuals, especially Julian Crouch's design.  There are certainly no stand-out performances per se, although Toby Spence impressed in the last act where his singing is musically the only game in town.  Snaps too for the sumptuous lighting, originally by Paule Constable and recreated for this revival by Kevin Sleep.

Everything is thrown at the visuals: scenic effects, video projection, large-scale puppetry, fire, flying on wires... the whole mishpocha.  But here, the visuals tend to be stand-alone effects... they do not illuminate what one is hearing or understanding: the start of the third act is mostly taken up with the ensemble SLOWLY crossing from left to right, both upstage and downstage, pulling sellotape across the stage at various heights... this goes on forever and for the wont of an OH WOW stage image - shimmering strands marking the march of the miners - the mind is distracted from the music and what is being told.

There were arresting stage images: a huge living ball of newspapers seeming coming to life at the back of the stage for Gandhi to enter it and emerge in the persona the world was to grow to know;  waving waves of newsprint;  giant warriors fighting each other in the opening scene based on the Mahabharata; a giant fire pit surrounded by Gandhi's acolytes... but the last stage image really irked me... a figure is on a tall podium at the back of the stage obviously giving a loooong speech while Gandhi sings "(God) comes into being age after age" and slowly (everything is done slowly as I said) wanders to the back of the stage to rest his hand on the podium by way of benediction... yes it's supposed to be Martin Luther King.  All very hokey... you can tell it's written by an American!

Oh and one last thing... in these days of both non-traditionalist and strict ethnic casting - when did you last see a white Othello? - why were all the singers white?  In these production photos, the cast looks more like the local operatic society from MIDSOMER MURDERS, in fact Toby Spence looks more like John Crippin than Mahatma Gandhi.

If this was a West End show there would be woolly liberal protesters around the theatre!