Satyagraha at English National Opera review ***

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi


English National Opera, 27th February 2018

Finally I have got to see all three of Philip Glass’s seminal operas, Einstein on the Beach (the science-y one), Akhnaten (the religious one) and now this Satyagraha (the political one). Einstein on the Beach was a recreation of the original Robert Wilson production at the Barbican a few years ago. Gruelling in places, daft as well, and it looked pretty lo-fi. Akhnaten, also at the ENO with substantially the same creative¬† team, looked and sounded sublime, but overall I was middle-whelmed. And so it was with Satyagraha. Improbable’s staging certainly tops the already lofty heights they achieved in Akhnaten, and there was probably more to the story unfolding in Sanskrit, but the pleasure, and marginal pain, derived by this observer was not dissimilar.

Since I can’t really imagine more committed advocates than this creative team for these two operas I think I have to conclude that, if pushed, I prefer my Glass in other formats. Like the string quartets or the works for keyboards. That’s a terrible admission isn’t it. Anyway probably as well I know now as Mr Glass has written a fair few operas, 29 and counting, including the chamber works. Mind you he has been pretty busy across all genres. He’s already snuck in another string quartet this year for example I see. Anyway the profligacy of PG is both joy and curse for the committed fan of minimalism, or, as he terms it, repetitive music.

There is no doubt that there is a unique pleasure in succumbing to its hypnotic effect. Hearing the structures slowly change as the notes are added or subtracted. Melodies, motifs and harmonies appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Wave upon wave of sound, altering, circling, revisiting, but never really getting anywhere. Timeless. Meditative. All transcendent when it’s just you and the music. But with opera the whole point is to witness the music interact with the drama. And this is where the disconnect emerges. If you succumb solely to the music then the visual spectacle risks taking too much of a back seat. There is way too much stagecraft trickery to admire here though to permit drifting off into an hypnotic trance. Who would have thought so much could be done with papier-mache and sellotape? Yet the structure and pace of PG’s score, the episodic structure of the “action”, largely based on key events in the struggle for emancipation by Indians in South Africa, led by Gandhi, and the Sanskrit text, all make for very static human tableaux. And a lot of slow motion shuffling.

A spell is cast but there are times when it might be nice to be snapped out of the soporific contemplation into some high drama. Having influences on Gandhi past, present and future, in the form of Tolstoy, then Rabindranath Tagore, and finally Martin Luther King, lurking at the back of the set isn’t quite enough, and the wow moments as Improbable make newspaper come to life, create gods and monsters before our eyes or bring crowd scenes to life, don’t always articulate with the, you guessed it, non-linear story (based on my reading of the synopsis).

Still admire the parts. The marvellous chorus and orchestra led by Glass expert Karen Kamensek, (as in Akhnaten), moulded PG’s musical shapes effortlessly. I didn’t know that I had seem Improbable’s work before in a very different context, namely Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, improv theatre from a cast of older actors, which worked a bit better than I might have expected. AD’s Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, and here associate Julian Crouch, don’t lack for imagination or, based on Satyagraha, brilliance of execution. The go-to team for video design, 59 Productions, also leave their mark. Toby Spence gives us the Gandhi of myth, standing stock still for long periods, then bursting into his sumptuous tenor, but no sign of the man himself. The rest of the cast have even less opportunity to shape characterisation beyond the puppets they share the stage with. They all sounded great to me though, especially soprano Charlotte Beament, as Gandhi’s assistant.

The central message of Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word which Gandhi defined as “holding on to truth”, and which underpinned his theory and praxis of nonviolence, does sort of emerge from the production, but a bit of reading around, before and after, helps. The denial of self, the power of the collective, the effectiveness of planned and self-critical resistance. Think of this as a project. Put a bit of effort in and you might just learn something.

Or just do what I suspect the majority of the packed house at the ENO were doing, (this has been revived thrice, it is so “popular”). Gaze and listen in wonder and don’t get antsy about the fact it is all over the shop. At the end of the day the ENO has its hit and this, with its predecessor, is pulling in all sorts of punters who might, rightly in my view, give a wide berth to Verdi and Puccini.

Mind you I reckon this new generation of Glass converts might draw the line at the 5 hours of hippyish clap-trap that is Einstein on the Beach.



The Shape of Water film review *****


The Shape of Water, 26th February 2018

I have to confess I wasn’t that interested in seeing The Shape of Water, (I am pleased with my little conceptual joke here). The trailers suggested this was likely in a similar vein to Guillermo Del Toro’s previous gothic horror/romance/fantasy films: lovely to look at but tedious to watch. Yet the reviews were persuasive, Sally Hawkins is a tip-top favourite of mine and I was getting into the swing of seeing all the Oscar nominated films in the manner of a sad armchair critic.

So off I went. Dear reader, I was bewitched. This is not, on the face of it, a complicated fable, but it has a lot to say. Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, an orphan who has not spoken since being found on a riverbank with scars on her throat. She works as a cleaner at Occam, an aerospace military research facility in Cold War America. Our symbolic “monster”, a merman/amphibian of sorts, direct from the Amazon, arrives. So far, so Del Toro. Class A psycho nutjob, Strickland, played with splenetic relish by the versatile Michael Shannon, is tasked with looking after the creature, which he does, cruelly. Restless scientist Hofstetler, (an austere Michael Stuhlbarg), objects, but, as a Russian spy, he has ulterior motives. Eliza, through that tried and trusted combination of eggs and music, falls in love with the creature and hatches a plan to release him, roping in kindly, gay, commercial artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and voluble colleague Zelda (another engaging performance from Octavia Hill). You can guess the rest.

Good triumphs over evil, naturally and there is thrill, if not suspense, in the break-out. This is a timeless story. Beauty and the Beast, set against a world of US-Soviet paranoia. You can feel the references to other classic films, even if, like me, you don’t know what they are. There is an echo of the silent movie greats as well as a nod to the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed Eliza and Giles actually live above a cinema the Orpheum (courtesy of Toronto, as so many of the exterior shots are). It is chock-full of repeated motifs and symbols. Mr Del Toro has a hand in the writing, but has wisely co-opted Vanessa Taylor, who wrote some of the early episodes of Game of Thrones. It shows. There is a hard-edged realism which punctures the fantasy and lends structure to the story.

Unsurprisingly the film looks exquisite with blues and greens predominating and all sorts of arresting images wrung from Mr Del Toro’s box of tricks. Water, water, everywhere. Costumes from Luis Sequeira, Paul Austerberry’s designs, Alexandre Desplat’s inventive score and, especially, Dan Lausten’s cinematography, all coalesce to bring the story to life. Frankly though none of this can work if the two, effectively wordless, performances of the two leads don’t convince. Getting zipped in to a merman/amphibian suit for hours on end and trying to convey emotion through face and body movement alone is a job few can master. Just as well Mr Del Toro has his long time “monster” collaborator, Doug Jones, on hand.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Sally Hawkins is a gifted actress. I saw her first in 2000 in a pair of Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre. was struck by her performances in the TV adaptions of Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Persuasion, by her collaborations with Mike Leigh and, most impressively, by her performance alongside Rafe Spall in Nick Payne’s Constellations. The two of them turned that into a much better play than it really was, and it was pretty good to start with. Here, as Eliza, she is transcendent. I don’t care how grizzled and cynical you are, this is a love story you should buy into.

So there you have it. I am fortunate to have had the time to see all the Oscar nominated best films, bar Call Me By Your Name. I enjoyed all of them, but only this, Phantom Thread and Three Billboards … really seemed to me to harness the power of cinema. Films where you know the direction of travel or where the camera is just pointed at the action can be satisfying but what I crave is uncertainty and surprise. And insight into the human condition. I see the other films I really liked last year would fail to make the grade because they are either a) “foreign”, b) tiny, in budget, not scope, c) actually from the prior year or d) maybe a bit too full on. I would have shoved Mother!, Detroit and The Florida Project into the list if I where in charge. Mind you, all pointless since Three Billboards … is, unarguably, the best of the chosen bunch but, to my immense surprise, The Shape of Water, runs it close.

I should have realised. Never underestimate a fat bloke born in 1964 (or 1963) with a terrible beard and ill-kempt hair who spends too much time locked in his imagination.