Sunday, 27 September 2009

Christof Loy's Tristan for the Royal Opera

Does this look familiar (hat tip Opera News)? This is a scene from Christof Loy's Lulu for the Royal Opera from earlier this year played out in a minimal staging - next to no furniture and monochrome, contemporary vernacular costume.

To others (who, as I did, attended the public dress rehearsal) this will look very similar to the Royal Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde, also directed by Loy, which opens on Tuesday. I left rather more confounded than I had been by Lulu.

Where Lulu was set in a number of urban spaces, for which an undressed stage is as good a proxy as any, Tristan und Isolde is set on the sea (Act 1) and overlooking the sea (Act 3). "How black the sea is!" remarks the shepherd in Act 3 making explicit the connection between the noumenal night that has been referred to throughout the previous act - "immeasurable, unorganised, void" as Aschenbach has it in Death in Venice, Britten's Wagnerian love-and-the-sea opera.

Needless to say then that there is no sea/boat/sails etc. in Loy's production. This is fair enough in his aesthetic - there is no action in the water, which stands as a metaphor in the dialogue. The reason it becomes an issue though is that Loy does show a fair bit of corollary action further upstage in a 19th century-a-like ballroom behind the rake. This involves a men-only formal dinner, the close-parallel universe in which King Marke's court and its trappings are the moral and social rubric.

It's one thing to omit a vista or imply rather than show a scene. To have others occupy a space in order to focus the metaphorical emphasis of that scene (or its omission) is a further step - but to replace it with something else is really stretching the disbelief-suspension envelope for an audience. I think Loy has thought, reasonably, that Wagner's allusions to reality are generally metaphors anyway. Tristan is, after all, a philosophical discourse poetised for lyrical delivery. It's meant to be abstract at face value. The problem I have (this being the case) is that Loy is substituting this 'metaphorical' staging for some other one - and consequently the audience must work twice as hard, jumping from what the singers are talking about to what it means twice instead of just once. It's not more direct, it's actually more complicated.

Loy is a modernising reductionist, who "doesn't like superficial distractions" (more Lulu-quote), i.e. he wants to get at the drama at the core of the piece. Well, that's all fine and good, but in order to dramatise a work one has to dress it to a certain extent. Loy chooses a stark modern idiom which is fairly close to the unsullied palette to be found near the 'core' of any piece. Yet some dressing is necessary, some 'distraction' (read mediation) and Loy's decision in this production is at odds to what is in the text.

I liked one or two other directorial decision - slo-mo sequences in the background are an interesting response to the time-stretching solipsisms of the eponymous principals downstage. I also liked the violence of the red on black-on-white as the final massacre comes about in its frenetic final pocket of the third act. People have been referring to this as the 'Tarantino Tristan', in reference to Reservoir Dogs (and also as Reservoir Dogs is a film in which a significant pre-story is recounted but not shown).

Ultimately Tristan is a difficult opera to stage and it's down to the cast and orchestra to make its case. Pappano certainly knows how it 'goes' and one hopes that its intent comes alive during the run.

Cinema for Crystal Palace

Today I signed a card objecting to proposals to turn the old cinema in Crystal Palace into a church (yes, and bought the t-shirt of the campaigning group

There are two reasons why I have done this.

1. There is a cinema disused in Crystal Palace which the independent Picturehouse cinema chain would like to buy and run as a cinema.

2. The obstruction to this happening is a religious group.

The religious (Christian) group KICC have already purchased the property and are waiting for their 'change of use' application to go through in order that they might use this as a place of worship. The campaign group are encouraging people to write to Bromley borough council to object to this application.

Reasonably, the campaign group are encouraging people to word their objections in a positive light, to stress the desire for the cinema to be used as a cinema and to talk of the benefits that this will bring to the community (as I say, this is the first reason why I support this lobbying movement). It is suggested that objections should not be negative about the KICC and its intent for the building.

However, it is clear to me that for all that expediency demands moderation in argument and positive campaigning, it is equally true that the community in Crystal Palace does not want the KICC at its centre, especially as they will be misappropriating a building built for a very different purpose in the process.

From what I know of Crystal Palace (I live not in the heart of the community, but on its periphery) it is an intelligent, middle-class, independently-minded and self-sufficient community to be found in a fairly small area at the top of a hill. The businesses often appear organically, born out of local need or creativity, and invariably appeal less to a sense of supplying demand for goods than demand for coming together.

The idea of a religious group from a different part of town, thus twice imposing itself (physically and ideologically) is entirely counter-intuitive. That this group should take over a historic building at the centre of the community is also jarring. Above all that the building - a cinema, a place for art, inspiration - should be taken over by a group propagating ideas seriously flawed by their own suspect moral fibre and one begins to wonder how Bromley council can approve their application for a change of use at all, irrespective of the interest in an alternative use for the building.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

She Stoops To Conquer at The Greenwich Theatre

The Greenwich Theatre front of house is run like the ideal provincial theatre: bright, modern, well-staffed. The theatre itself is proscenium with a semi-protruding stage, as if aspiring to be in the round. This amiable and at times improvised production of Oliver Goldsmith's Beaumarchais-contemporary satire She Stoops To Conquer uses this invitation to informality well, often winking at the audience and occasionally co-opting the (un)lucky ones in the front row.

The Mappa Mundi Company are a classic rep touring company taking high-quality theatre on the road all points between London venues such as Greenwich and their native Wales. The play seems well-embedded in this company. It's fast and fluent (although it also has the tell-tale traces of the well worn - lines delivered in just too brisk a manner for a new audience to really absorb them).

It hardly matters. Although She Stoops To Conquer is not a physical comedy it really does require some acting along with its reading. I particularly liked Liam Tobin's Mr Hardcastle, buffo but not buffoon and Edward Harrison's effevescent Tony Lumpkin as his son. Indeed all parts are well-taken and, not unreasonably, the wider press has particularly delighted in Kathryn Dimery's pungent northern cipher of Mrs Hardcastle. However I couldn't help feeling that Mali Tudno Jones's Kate was perhaps rather glazed. This is a fine play where, for all the twist-n-turn inequities of the plot, everyone is more or less equal at the outset and by the end. Rousing, moral and uplifting.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Argumental Series 3

Last night I found myself being filmed in the audience for series 3 of Dave's Argumental. Dave is a UK comedy channel which has a balanced diet of older, well-worn comedy favourites and new shows, like this one, Argumental - which is a new version of older well-worn comedy favourites.

The producer asked us not to talk about the content of the show, which is entirely reasonable, so you won't find any gags or spoilers here. However I found the experience faintly interesting and thought I might share at least a little of that.

Argumental, for all its game-show pretensions, is simply a vehicle for stand-up comedy. Consequently we had a classic support act (whose name I didn't catch) setting a brisk comic tone, one part risky to two parts observational nuttiness.

Bizarrely it was also the only truly improvised set of the evening. For all that Dave markets Argumental as an improvised contest, it's fairly tightly scripted. The contestants read from autocue. Each comedian has clearly prepared his or her own script - some with bullet points, some with sketched notes, one almost verbatim. Here's a series 2 clip from Dave's YouTube channel:

Of course, inbetween the more formal stretches of the show there is a great deal of improvisation, but this is contained within the triangle of competing teams and compere John Sargeant. Whilst it plays to the audience it doesn't really involved them directly.

A couple of things emerge from this. Firstly, whilst you might expect the improvised overspill of the show to be considerable, so that there is plenty of material to edit down, this also applies to the script. Clearly, the comedians bring prepared material into the show prepared to lose a proportion of it according to what gets the laughs on the night.

Secondly it is marvellous watching the sheer professionalism of the dedicated, broadcast-calibre comedians at their work. Despite being able to follow the delivery of the script via the autocue, it is very difficult to tell exactly when the script is being delivered, such is a the ease with which the comedians move between the prepared and the spontaneous. They are also highly aware of the practical necessities of the recording, despite the live show being taped. At one stage one of the guests immediately repeated an off-the-cuff joke which he had delivered imperfectly but felt might be worth keeping. His presence of mind to keep the audience aware of the technical necessity of what he was doing without deflating the genuine comic temperature of the moment was deeply impressive (I might add that my own opinion of this particular comic was very low indeed and has since rocketed accordingly).

In its pre-edit version the show is notably coarse. The images and ideas dreamt up by the contestants and the language used to describe them can be very mucky and occasionally hops back and forth over the line of good taste. However, we sat through 3 hours of recording for two half-hour shows, so one can see that this as an affective strategy, with the comedians expecting much of this to be cut.

Indeed, by the time the recording had finished it was well past 10.00pm. Given that we had been brought into the studio at around 6.30 and were discouraged from leaving our seats inbetween the editions being filmed, the audience is clearly treated as camera fodder rather than a real audience - the TV audience. Nonetheless, the comedians are on stage for the most part of that and their contribution is all the more impressive for it. I will watch the shows when they go to air from 13 October with fresh eyes.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Le Grand Macabre at ENO

What is Le Grand Macabre? Well, it does pretty much what it says as semi-occultist, taboo-transgressing circus of grand theatrical gesture. English National Opera have imported quite a spectacle from the continent as a vehicle for this rarely performed end-of-world satire by Ligeti and it makes an impression.

The piece is a succession of absurd episodes, spilling from and orbiting the body of a woman frozen in time as she fears some sort of catastrophic corporeal malfunction. This, straightaway, is the first masterstroke of La Fura dels Baus' production concept, a meta-image of where the action is taking place: the woman, shown living - and possibly dying - in squalor is shown first on screen then replicated on a huge installation that serves as the set throughout the opera. They've called it Claudia. It's brilliant.

The absurdity and terror of this situation spawns characters. Two lovers, all exposed sinew like the plastinated bodies of Gunter von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits appear and attempt to copulate (it has the same repellant fascination and humour as the famous Simpsons Halloween episode Treehouse Of Horror V in which the family's bodies are inverted for the final chorus). The Grand Macabre himself pops out of Claudia's mouth and arms himself for the evening's work - to bring the world (i.e. this fleshy microcosm of the world, but the metaphor is already breaking down to excorporate everything) to an end. More worldly recognisable characters are also involved - the drink-sodden Piet the Pot and his friend Astrodamors, suffering psychologically what Claudia wrestles with physically under his domineering nymphomaniac wife Mescalina.

Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne are nicely cast as the contradictory lovers, ardent, lyrical and, physically, utterly repellant. Both Piet and Astrodamors, as the human figures on stage have the most wretched, unforgiving vocal tasks. Alas, Astrodamors is a step to far for the usually magnificent Frode Olsen. Pavlo Hunka's ashen Mussolini of a Nekrotzar is domineering enough but rather prosaic in a role which probably needs more vocal thunder.

One has the feeling that La Fura dels Baus director Alex Ollé knows pretty much what he's doing. He never wrestles with the piece, which is invariably punchy and manic and certainly never explains itself. Rather the written jokes are nicely delivered and there's plenty of interpolated humour besides. Indeed the grotesque end-of-days vision is rendered, if not palatable, then manageable by the relentless farce both in the libretto and on the stage. It must be said that Ligeti's rigour in serving de Ghelderode's original fin-de-sieclé, Breughel-Boschian concept is the main advocate of the score. One can discern the formal units in the music (if not always the programme-trumpeted stylistic parody) and Ollé has also chased the dramatic purpose in the twists and turns of the staging rather than responding to the music.

The second half of the production ups the ante once again. The versatile set of Claudia, fascinatingly manipulated with projection and separable body parts in the first half, is completely thrown open. The head, thrust out in terror rotates through 360 degrees as in The Exorcist and the potty-mouthed Black and White ministers that squeeze from the huge anus, pull the backside apart to reveal the intestine as a none-too-covert war zone. This third act is the most assured comic passage in the piece with, Dan Norman and Simon Butterkiss' Ministers owning their well-honed shtick with Andrew Watts' gold-suite Prince Go-Go. Inamongst all this is cast the vocally rock-like performance of Suzanna Andersson, a stutter-gun of crazy coloratura and the cabaletta to the cavatina delivered as the Japanese pop-pink porn-kitten of Chewbacca's dreams back in the first half (yes, it's that mad). The riot reaches a climax in a disco sequence that gets the best reception of the evening in incorporating an apposite homage to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It is most certainly the night of the living dead.

Unfortunately and rather lilke the toxic shock and hangover that the whole opera might be arguaed to represent, the fourth act is an over-distended denoument. Nekrotzar, inebriated, fails to bring apocalypse and the cast realise they are not doomed. In fact this may be the saddest span of the opera, recognising that the party of abandon is as absurd as the possibility of annihilation. Life either continues, monotonously, or it ends. Though it's formally fairly satisfying I couldn't quite process the Don Giovanni-like epilogue ensemble number which seemed a bit neat.

Clearly this production is a sensory and intellectual torrent, an experience that not deconstruction and discussion can really contain the measure of. Baldur Brönnimann's stewardship of the commendable house orchestra seemed unimpeachable. There were no weak links from chorus to dancer-actors to technicians. The opera certainly throws fresh light on my experience in watching a half-comparable piece, Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, back in August. Birtwistle's work is a more totemic, more po-faced sequence of episodes but I enjoyed Ligeti's work more for more than just its humour. The music does have pockets of self-interested lyricism like ribbons stretched between the barbs of satire. It wasn't enough to make me feel comfortable using the word 'beauty' in respect of this piece but it did leaven the experience, investing it with humanity and much-needed respite from its invariable brutality.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


It's September and I can't speak for the rest of you but I'm certainly ready for a new season in our capital of culture.

In fact I've already been stalking across choice venues across town, popping in and out of various Picture House Cinemas (to see The September Issue, Broken Embraces, District 9 and The Hurt Locker) and making a first-time visit to the The Roundhouse, where I saw Tom Hickox headlining after a successful summer at SXSW and Glastonbury.

I also went to The Gate Theatre for the first time to see Vanya, an adaptation of Checkov's Uncle Vanya. It's been well-received in the press and rightly so - it's a well-focused, funny and marvellously depressing ninety minute four-hander. The cast is more or less well-balanced and perform in a complex, rotating set which - in the necessity of opening it up only to have it closed again by the curtain-call - reminded me of Sisyphus. There's just enough moral triumph in it though to endorse Albert Camus' famous adage "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The star is probably Fiona Button's tragi-comic Sonya but I was particularly enamoured of Suise Trayling's perfectly matured Chekovian Yelena. Vanya's run has been extended into October - follow the theatre on Twitter for more details.

I'm looking forward to getting to see plenty of first-class opera in the two permanent theatres in London and my priority booking form for the BFI London Film Festival is (hopefully) sitting on a desk in the NFT's box office right now. I'm also going to The Frieze Art Fair, The Philharmonia's Wozzeck and, in time, to see Angelo Badalamenti talk on Blue Velvet and Michael Haneke talk on anything he wants to - I'm all ears for that man!

I recognise that London Fashion Week is upon us and although this isn't necessarily my cup of tea, I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who has ideas on how to get involved on the interested periphery. This looks interesting.

In the meantime I recommend you pop over to One & Other, where you can still watch a live stream of what's ging on on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. That's right, Anthony Gormley/Sky's Big Brother substitute continues, for better or worse...