Saturday, 30 May 2009

A Winter's Tale @ The Old Vic

Last night saw the first preview of The Winter's Tale under the direction of Sam Mendes, part of a double-header (the other show's The Cherry Orchard) playing here after a spell the other side of the pond. It's a mixed bag of a cast in terms of celebrity: Simon Russell Beale and Sinéad Cusack are UK stage royalty but the shows will sell out on the basis of shooting star Rebecca Hall and Hollywood dauphin Ethan Hawke; the rest of the cast are a capable, discreet melange of all of the above.

It's a good show of a good play. Sicilia and Bohemia become transatlantic poles in an effectively abstracted-Edwardian design. Ethan Hawke's manic balladeer plays blues, rock riffs and joins a folk trio in the second half after jealously has got the better of King Leontes in the first, rather as pride does in Lear. Simon Russell Beale's Leontes is the talisman of the production, a mercurial and remarkably proletarian doge who moves between vaudeville and pathos balletically. Rebecca Hall plays his wife, the wronged Queen, and her premature departure allows Hall the opportunity to give an intense account of her travail.

Sinéad Cusack as Paulina balances the void of a stalwart female voice with a fine performance opposite Russell Beale. It's interesting to note the value of a fine actor coming on for a limited but essential part and period, less to engage the audience but to ground them in the play's intents: Paul Jesson's Camillo (who is, symbolically, joined with Paulina at the close) is another case in point.

Mendes's production is a simple affair which benefits from fine lighting (Paul Pyant). The themes of desertion, privation and the elapsing of time are of a piece with the pale wood raked stage and minimal clutter - this is the Winter in the tale, a suspension of warmth and largesse, waiting for resolution that only time seems to be able to provide. There are one or two minor coups, one demanded by the famous stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear' (a chilling moment, which many reasonably took as a knowing joke). Mark Bennett's music from the wings is a little rudimentary, functional & anonymous - the on-stage band are a treat though.

Shakespeare's play seems to be the only elephant in the auditorium, as it were. I felt the seams fairly presently, wondering whether I was watching a re-hash of Lear (as mentioned) or even Oedipe. Having two continents divided not only by 16 years but also an interval and the first entrance of, in the eyes of many, the biggest star of the evening makes for quite a fermata in the drama. The drama itself gets curtailed necessarily towards the end as the big revelation one expects gets subordinated for one one does not - this makes for an interesting (if protracted) denoument but I'm not sure that it's even drama.

Nonetheless it's a fair production in the final analysis, giving the play its due which is considerable. Good luck finding a ticket...

Postscript: On this week's Radio 5 Live film review, Mark Kermode, in his ongoing discussion of 3D films, quoted Sam Mendes who, in answer to the question 'would you ever do a film in 3D' had replied
I already have - it's called theatre.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Falstaff at Glyndebourne

A new production of Verdi's final opera for the famous Sussex opera season company, directed by Richard Jones. Jones' reputation goes before him as something of a pop-art enfant terrible using unlikely designs and associations in order to access the heart of the drama. This blogger has already responded positively to the 'Cav & Pag' he mounted for ENO earlier in the season and (consequently) I was looking forward to seeing how he'd handle a bona fide comedy.

It's mostly good news. Jones parachutes the opera into post war, Dig For Victory mentality Britain, a land of old institutions and new faith in their benefits and solidity. Most solid and most sure among them is Sir John Falstaff, Chris Purves in a customary but not notably excessive fatsuit. He holds court at the sort of pub that one recognises even today upon visiting Windsor: the set design for this, as for all the scenes of the opera bar (the final Herne's Wood anomaly) push the stage area right up to the footlights, creating a present 2-dimensionality that is prefigured by the tapestry safety curtain.

If there's a noticeable manner of staging then its in the grouping of units of characters. Verdi's opera is an unrepentantly ensemble work and it is from this that Jones takes his most noteworthy directorial cue. The singers all stick together in pockets, chattering, purposeful, amiable groups where even the scheming seems well-intentioned. On top of this there are plenty of non-singing extras - brownie groups, a rowing eight, friends in a pub or shopping - who move through the piece as like-minded units. Against this Falstaff, though not played as a buffoon and not rejected as some sort of social anomaly does have an air of isolation: the eccentric, rather than the pariah.

Indeed, at the end of the opera the entire company join him in a drink despite the mad shenanigans of Herne's Wood. This is the weak point of the show for me. The entire stage is suddenly put to use, dominated by a huge tree, into which space pour the whole company in every Halloween costume ever invented. The blocking is a bit rough, certainly compared to the purposeful regimentation of what had gone before; as to the drama that had gone before, well this scene seems interpolated from a completely different show (A Midsummer Night's Dream, methought). I was left feeling utterly bewildered at the curtain.

'Luckily' the music's good - 'luckily', as I still haven't managed to get my head around the opera itself. After a lifetime of sculpting perfect lyric masterpieces, Verdi dived off into this contiguous, stream-of-consciousness epilogue to his career, full of energy and humour but without the formal corners that might help better define the drama. As an unbroken fabric (tapestry, again) of sound though it's difficult to beat the performance of the LPO on the shiniest of form, Jurowski procuring a punchy and plangent sound from the pit on the twist of a stick. Fantastic.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Dave Gahan on the mend

Sorry to hear that Dave Gahan, the unmistakable voice of legendary post-punk/electronica outfit Depeche Mode has been very unwell but pleased that reports suggest he's on the mend.

Susan Boyle is the Messiah

Susan Boyle. Simply amazing.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Peter Grimes at ENO

A new David Alden production. I expected no stone (pebble?) to be left unturned in his stage-search for the heart of the drama and I was not 'disappointed'. There's a meticulous details in the characters, who wear themselves and their back stories in their costumes, most notably the wonderful double act of the nieces Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buick, skittering all over the stage as glazed, maturity-stunted products of years of causal abuse. Britten's idea was fairly clear - no-one's perfect, but the 'outsider' is the one that gets picked on - and Alden simply runs riot with it. Paul Steinberg's set design is fine, a shifting mix of the abstract, realist and inspired (I didn't get on with the Starbucks-a-like for Auntie's inner sanctum of the Boar but I thought that the reproduction of John Piper's designs for Death in Venice as the outside of the same in the anti-penultimate party scene where a show highlight).

Stuart Skelton's singing of Grimes is all about beauty, exemplified in an ethereal Great Bear aria but with power to spare all over the score. His acting is not quite in the same league (you can tell when he's been well-directed or not) but this is a fine Grimes altogether, a career-marker. The other principals, in rather more lurid colours of music and staging crowd this Grimes through sheer quality: Felicity Palmer's Mrs Sedley is an hilarious force of nature; Leigh Melrose's Ned Keene a spiv as high on his own product as she is; and Gerald Finely's Balstrode is the most beautifully sung characterisation I can remember on stage or on record. Amanda Roocroft is a remarkable Ellen, at once girlish and flighty, taking years off the typical characterisation of the more measured widower one might be used to, although I wanted more beauty in the sound, more of the 'silken thread' of her own set-piece Embroidery aria.

In support, the augmented chorus are on great form, a real purple patch of output, with heft and precision. There's a fair bit of abandon in the acting too, as opposed to the usual back-of-the-stage ennui that this lot can specialise in. Once again though, it's all about what's going on in the pit and what is going on in the pit is Edward Gardner. I feel that's it's still a work in progress. The real bite, purchase and ribbon in the sound that one is familiar from seasoned pit ensembles (LPO at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden Orchestra) cannot be too far away and will come with time and trust. There's no doubt however that Gardner knows exactly what he wants and how do it - when band and conductor meet in the middle it's really super.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Qawwali Sham Sufi at the Tricycle

Last night I went to see the Afghan Qawwali Sham Sufi group at London's Tricycle Theatre. A predominantly Pakistani artform, this Afghan outfit exhibits only minor differences, such as using a transverse flautist, and the tabla player wearing bells on his wrist. The alaps (introductory vocalisations) seemed fairly short and the vocal extemporisations were increasingly subsumed into the riotous, intoxicatingly rhythmic pursuit of some sort of delirium, be it spiritual or artistic. Here's some toob footage of a gig the group performed in Scotland last year: