The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida Theatre ****

The Duchess of Malfi

Almeida Theatre, 2nd Jan 2020

No question Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is talented. Her Summer and Smoke, the dreamy Three Sisters here last year and now this. And for those, like the Tourist, who get a little antsy about her intemperate use of de jour theatrical tropes, then, I gather, she played it entirely naturalistically for Chris Bush’s Steel in the Crucible Studio recently .(LD, despite now having gone all Sheff native still hasn’t been – you try your best, eh, and what thanks do you get).

The glass box set courtesy of Chloe Lamford, a regular in Continental European art theatres, as well as display cabinets stage left and right, memento mori, housing anachronistic props. And yes this being a tragedy the walls get smeared with blood, though this is black not red, so pervasive is the corruption. Simple, well tailored, monochrome modern dress, with a woeful disregard for footwear, from Nicky Gillibrand. Stark lighting designed by Jack Knowles. Pulsing soundscape from George Dennis. Title projection to bookmark each act of John Webster’s tragedy. Microphones. Slow motion when it gets hyper-dramatic. Which it does. At the end. Soundtracked with the passus duriusculus ground bass of Dido’s Lament,

All present and correct. Yet all serves as an ideal foil to the excellent central performances, most notably of Lydia Wilson as The Duchess and Leo Bill as the conflicted betrayer Bosola. The Duchess of Malfi can be, and is now usually, as here, read, as a proto-feminist tract, as our heroine, despite her wealth is destroyed by her brothers, Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal (Michael Marcus) who object to her marriage to, and children with, “lowly” steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla). In outline the plot reads like textbook macabre revenge tragedy: in practice there is plenty of room for ambiguity and exploration within Webster’s poetry. John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore, written a decade or so later, is a similarly impartial, elaborate dive into human nature, when done well, as it was in Cheek By Jowl’s adaptation which first introduced the Tourist to the talent of Ms Wilson who played the incestuous Arabella. Obviously she is a big deal on the telly and it is easy to see why.

We (the SO got the gig) were lucky enough to be close enough to see her full range of expression, verbal and non-verbal, in a role full of “say one thing, mean another” moments. Antonio doesn’t stand a chance in the seduction scene, her quest for normality despite her position, as reasonable as it is unattainable, and the showdowns with the brothers are electric. Leo Bill’s duality is revealed more explicitly through monologue as he wrestles with his conscience after taking the cash to spy on the Duchess and her secret hubby. Jack Riddiford also pulls off the difficult act of being full on nutter, with a barely concealed sister love, that we still feel sorry for. Like a Roman Roy gone very bad, without the wisecracks. Especially when, contrary to Webster’s text, his dead sister comes back to haunt in the final act.

It is tricky for the rest of the cast to match these three characters and performances, though Khalid Abdalla’s diffident Antonio, Michael Marcus’s bullying Cardinal, Ioanna Kimbook’s confidant and maid Cariola and Shalini Peiris’s vulgar Julia, (both brutally murdered and both spectrally joining the Duchess), all support the increasingly tense psycho-drama. The staging and direction maybe suffers through lack of context, religion and its hypocrisy are key drivers in Webster’s play, and there are times when a bit more pace might have been injected, but overall this is another hit for both Almeida and Ms Frecknall. Proving that, with a bit of nip, tuck, and redirection, a Jacobean gore-fest can have as much to say about patriarchal control of female sexuality as the latest monologue at the Vaults. It is the Duchess’s daughter, not son, who here inherits. Though what legacy we ask.

The Almeida remains London’s most accomplished theatre and I have high hopes for Beth Steel’s new play The House of Shades. It spans five years over the last six decades so maybe this time we might be treated to a dose of naturalism. We’ll see.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican review ***

The Taming of the Shrew

Barbican Theatre, 2nd January 2020

What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.

Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.

In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.

Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.

The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.

Snowflake at the Kiln Theatre review ****

Snowflake

Kiln Theatre, 28th December 2019

Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.

Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.

Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.

We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.

Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.

Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Isabelle Faust (violin), Wies de Boevé (double bass), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), Raymond Curfs (drums), Dominique Horwitz (narrator)

Wigmore Hall, 23rd December 2019

  • Bartok – Solo Violin Sonata BB124
  • Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale

Curious confection this. Cut off from Russian royalties on the ballets, Stravinsky was short of a few bob whilst living in Switzerland during WWI, especially with first wife Katya poorly, so he teamed up with the similarly impecunious writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to create L’Histoire du Soldat, a small scale music-theatrical work, to be “read, played and danced” which would be cheap to stage and could be toured anywhere. The boys turned to a Russian tale of a soldier who goes AWOL and, Faust style, sells his soul to the devil. Plenty of contemporary resonance, and a suitable format, for the gruelling post war years.

IS had yet to hear a note of the jazz music emerging from the US but, armed with a few sheets of music brought to him by Ernst Ansermet, he resolved to incorporate the new rhythmic style into the score and to reflect its sound in his choice of instrumentation with a combination of high and low pitches from each family: violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, trumpet and trombone as well as a wide range of percussion. It’s not that jazzy but is definitely a precursor to all the bouncy, syncopated grooves that IS was to serve up in the next decade. It doesn’t do too much by way of variation however, reprising a few key themes, and, this being my first sustained listen, is a bit same-y, even with the shifts in time signatures.

And the spoken parts, especially here where there was no dancer to distract, tend to dominate. Which gave a lot of leeway to Dominique Horwitz, who narrated, as well as taking on the roles of soldier and devil. Now M. Horwitz is apparently a bit of an expert when it comes to this piece, as well as in the likes of Brecht, Weill and Brel. And his day job as actor means he throws himself into the character of the soldier, marching and jogging on the spot, brooding over his keepsakes, rescuing a princess and having run-ins with Beelzebub in his various guises. Whilst the text here was in English and M. Horwitz can cary a speech I wish I had actually had the story in front of me as I didn’t really find a way into it. And maybe M. Horowitz could have toned down the funny voices.

Couldn’t fault the musician’s performances though. This, after all, was a crack team led by the amazing Isabelle Faust, as she showed again in her interpretation of Bela Bartok’s 1944 solo violin sonata. Written in the year before he died, ill and short of money, to a commission by Yehudi Menuhin, it isn’t, as you might have guessed, the easiest piece in the solo violin repertoire. Bartok and Menuhin took a bit of time to hit it off and YM was initially perturbed by the difficulty of the score, notably some fearsome double-stopping, but with familiarity and the implacability of BB when it came to any changes, eventually brought him round.

It kicks off with a Chaconne in homage to Bach’s writing fo solo violin, though here mediated through the prism of C20 modernism and BB’s beloved Hungarian folk tunes. The second movement is a thrillingly tricky fugue, with complex counterpoint, angular, jagged, with extreme dynamics, like the vey best of Bartok’s writing. The slow movement in contrast is serene, easy on the ear compared to what has gone before, before the rush of the Presto finale. Like most Bartok it takes a bit of listening too, and getting into the listening zone (when nothing else matters but the music) takes a bit longer than for my other favourite B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Britten. And just maybe it took Isabelle Faust just a little bit longer than normal to find her groove.

Ravens at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer

Hampstead Theatre, 18th December 2019

I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..

A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.

Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.

So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.

T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.

Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.

My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.

A Kind of People at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.

Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.

Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.

All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.

Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.

Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra at the Barbican Hall review ****

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Trevor Pinnock (director), Rachel Redmond (soprano), Claudia Huckle (alto), James Way (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Zürcher Sing-Akademie

Barbican Hall, 11th December 2019

The Tourist’s annual Messiah. Almost Billy No Mates. But eventually MSBDB1 stepped into the breach. For which many thanks as Messiah is best shared.

Now the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is one of the many top drawer German period music ensembles and Trevor Pinnock, where he is a principal guest conductor, needs no introduction. Since leaving the group he founded, The English Concert, now directed by Harry Bicket, he has followed a portfolio career, conducting, performing on the harpsichord and teaching. Handel and especially Bach are his specialisms apparent in the many benchmark recordings, a few of which are cherished by the Tourist.

His 1988 Messiah recording changed the way most professional outfits engage with the work in terms of instrumentation, tempi, dynamics and texture. Of course if a choir of billions is still your bag then be my guest. But trust me this is better.

He didn’t rush things here with the FBO, in contrast to some other period ensembles and Handel’s foot tapping fugal tunes were given space to breathe. Trumpets and timpani kept in reserve until required. Which added clarity to the text and allowed each of the soloists to make an impact. (Though I was marginally more partial to Claudia Huckle’s graceful alto and Ashley Riches’s, er rich, bass-baritone. Marginally mind, and Rachel Redmond belied her last minute substitution especially in …. Redeemer … ). The Zürcher Sing-Akademie was divided 8 to a part and pretty much vibrato free. No OTT operatics here. Less a punch to the gut. More a massage of the temples. Lighter, brighter and more transparent than big Brit choruses. Just the way I like it.