The Unknown Island at the Gate Theatre review ***

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The Unknown Island

The Gate Theatre, 23rd September 2017

Saturday matinees at the Gate Theatre ¬†represent an astonishing bargain by “that London” standards (as do Wednesday matinees though they are limited to us economically unproductive types).

So I could traipse up to Wembley to watch Spurs stuff Bournemouth for just ¬£30 in a couple of weeks. But I would be a mile away from the action, there would be all the hassle of getting there and there would be extra trimmings to be paid for.¬†For just a tenner at the Gate though I get to see epic theatre of the highest quality from around the world right up close (this is, along with the Finborough, the most intimate of the “quality” fringe venues). This formula has been perfected over years, but took a step up under the stewardship of Christopher Haydon, and, on the basis of this offering, should continue now that Ellen MacDougall has taken the helm (she directed Chris Urch’s Rolling STone at the Orange Tree, one of the finest new plays of the last couple of years).

I am not going to pretend that this adaption by Ms MacDougall and dramaturg Claire Slater of a short story by Portuguese writer Jose Saramango was the finest work of theatre I have seen in recent months, but there was more than enough nourishment. And I don’t just mean the olives, bread and wine on offer as the cast fittingly broke character halfway through proceedings. This is a slippery, childlike but not childish, parable with multiple interpretations which was presented very well by the four strong cast of Jon Foster, Hannah Ringham, Thalissa Teixeira and Zubin Varla.

A man comes to the court of a King and will not leave until he is granted a ship to set out to discover the “unknown” island. The aloof King is reluctant at first but the persistent man’s wish is eventually granted and, in the absence of a crew and sufficient provisions, he sets off with the cleaning woman from the Court. They don’t get “there” but the man has a whacky dream along the way. That’s about it.

Except that within the tale are all manner of allusions to the structure of society, individual agency, the power of the imagination and ultimately what really matters in life. I spent the first half wrestling with the idea that there was some long arc of allegory here relating to the history of Portugal and the nature of revolution. Then it seemed to become more of a plea for the value of “self-discovery” but not in the way of the arse-hole, narcissistic blogger (for the avoidance of doubt I am aware of the irony here), but in a more humanistic, reflective way. Anyway wherever Mr Saramango was trying to take us there was value in the journey.

The set design by Rosie Elnile is striking, walls, floor and the benches around the entire space are bathed in a (practical as it turns out) turquoise, rubbery material and the actors are dressed head to toe in crimson. There is a striking red model boat and some comic balloons put in an appearance. The actors switch characters and often overlap. And at the end, in a nod to the end of our story, a window is opened to take us back into the real world of gullible tourists filtering down to the Portobello Road to buy tat.

I suspect that those who prefer their entertainment to be of a more literal or mimetic persuasion may come out feeling a little diddled, but if you are a bit more elastic in your tastes this could be for you. Of the rest of the season Suzy Storck looks most interesting though I have no real notion as to why. Still for the price of a couple of pints in the Prince Albert downstairs I will happily test that notion.

 

 

Fretwork at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby)

Wigmore Hall, 18th September 2017

JS Bach – The Art of Fugue – Contrapunctus I-XI, XIV

Fretwork are one of those marvellous groups of dedicated adventurers who have brought Early, Renaissance and Baroque music back to life. There was a time when vast swathes of this music was forgotten, unperformed and left to rot. But just as the Modern swept away all that dreadful artistic junk from the Late C18 and C19 (Western art music was a bit more fortunate thanks to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) so an ever increasing band of scholars and, from the middle of the last century, performers (first amateur and then professional), revived and extended our knowledge of this music. And at the same time the beat came back.

In fact it seems to me that there are two types of Western classical music listener: those who revel in the bombastic pretensions of the Romantics , where a wall is erected between listener and performers, and those of us who prefer to get our pleasures from “simpler” structures, music with discernible rhythm and pulse.

We are now probably three generations into the rise of Early Music and “period performance”, which has a healthy following in the concert hall and in recordings. All this love and scholarship has also changed the way music is performed and understood across the “classical” spectrum. In contrast to jazz, blues and modern “popular” music, composition and performance are separated in “classical” music. Context and history matter. The how, what, why and when of performance and composition matter. The renaissance of the musical Renaissance has generated a vital third strand in “classical” music, alongside the veneration of the sacred Romantic texts performed by “gifted” performers and the challenge to the layman of “in yer face” contemporary classical.

So thanks to all those who devote their education and lives to bringing this joy and passing it on to the next generation, rather than selling their skills to an investment bank. And to those composers who are writing for these ensembles.

Fretwork is a viol consort founded in 1985 and, as I understand it, only Richard Boothby remains of the original line-up. Their focus is normally on music of a somewhat earlier vintage than JSB (though they will and do extend the viol sound into unexpected places). Indeed JSB didn’t stop tinkering with the Art of Fugue until just before he departed this world. For those that don’t know it, JSB takes a fairly straightforward (but eminently adaptable) theme in D Minor and then sets off counterpointing the bejesus out of it. Fugue, contrapunctus, counterpoint – it all means the same thing. Take the tune in one place, then get everyone else to pick it up whilst messing around with it, then mesh it all together into a satisfying whole. For some Bach’s music is incredibly fiddly, like the architecture of the High Baroque which leaves me cold. But, whilst I hear the fiddly, I also hear the rhythmic whole. And I think lots of other people do. Simple and complex simultaneously. That’s the genius.

Now the Art of Fugue can be played in any number of ways by any number of instruments (though a single harpsichord I gather is the most likely inspiration). Clever old JSB. Never seen or heard modern strings or a modern piano but wrote perfectly for them. By the time it was written the viol was on the way out superseded by the precursors of the stringed family we see today. So it is unlikely the old fella would have expected it to be played by this combination. Flat backs, sloped shoulders, different shaped holes, more strings, different bowing techniques and, importantly frets (hence the band’s name), all conjure up a very different sound-world to a modern string quartet say.

I loved it. Turns out this is a revelatory way to follow all the counterpoint. The viols create alternatively 3 or 4, and occasionally 5 lines, which can all be followed but without detracting from the overall architecture. Whilst maybe less transcendent than a single keyboard version, (played say by Glen Gould, grunts and all), it was probably superior to the string quartet interpretations I have heard. Best of all was the final unfinished fugue, No XIV, with its musical BACH signature. There is a lot of debate apparently around why the old boy didn’t finish it (he started it well before the onset of blindness and anyway could have had an assistant complete it). So usually once the three themes that make it up, including the BACH theme, are introduced and developed it just stops and trails off as written. Here Mr Boothby has, with the ideas of a clearly very bright scholar, finished it off. Whilst I have no idea of the theory that backs it up it made for a very satisfactory ending to an excellent recital.

Fretwork. Check ’em out.