Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre review ****

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Imperium I Conspirator and Imperium II Dictator

Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018

I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.

All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.

So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.

The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.

The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.

With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.

Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.

For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Exit the King at the National Theatre review ****

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Exit the King

National Theatre Olivier, 15th August 2018

My first Ionesco play, albeit in a version adapted by ubiquitous wunderkind Patrick Marber, (one day the image of Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan that pops up at the mention of his name will pass), and, all things considered I liked what I saw and heard. I gather Exit the King is the least absurdist of his major works but there is nothing existentially impenetrable about this production. Apparently too this was the National Theatre’s first ever production of this playwright.

Maybe, over its 100 minutes or so running time, its theme, forgive the pun, was done to death. And maybe there was a bit too much “one character at a time”, comic-strip style declamation but overall I was hooked. Rhys Ifans, who I cannot lie, can annoy me, (I wasn’t bowled over by his fool in the Glenda Jackson Old Vic Lear), was perfectly cast as King Berenger; his movement, stature and delivery were expertly marshalled to great effect as the King went through the various stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) on the way to accepting his death. Indira Varma was imperiously forthright as Queen Marguerite, as you might expect, and Amy Morgan as Queen Marie, the King’s pandering favourite was a fine foil, even if I have to assume she was more Breton than Ile-de -France given the Welsh twang in her Gallic accent. Adrian Scarborough as The Doctor has added another notch to his long list of comedy side-kicks, the under-rated Debra Gillett squeezed a lot of laughs out of the maid/nurse Juliette as did childhood hero Derek Griffiths as the Guard, (I only realised it was him halfway through), with his pithy Brechtian pronouncements on the action.

Patrick Marber once again showed what a clever fellow he is, not just in the way he understands and interprets classic texts, but in the way he makes them relevant and lucid to contemporary audiences, (After Miss Julie, Don Juan in Soho, Three Days in the Country, Travesties). That I guess is what makes him so bankable as a writer/director though I would like to see him conjure up another original play to rival the heights of Dealer’s Choice and Closer. Anthony Ward’s set design is a triumph, showing it is possible to fill the vast Oliver barn with just six characters, and the coup de theatre delivered at the end, with the assistance of High Vanstone’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, is worth the ticket price alone. No hyperbole here. I literally think it is worth paying £15, for there are plenty of the cheap Travelex tickets left, to see this technical wonder.

King Berenger has reached the grand old age of 483. His kingdom is on its knees but the despotic old boy doesn’t seem to care. He discovers he only has an hour or so to live. There’s nothing the Doc can do. Welcome to the surreal world of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Inonesco. We are in a fairy tale though one that seems to obey Aristotelian real time. KB isn’t happy about the news. His Queens alternatively coax him into denying or accepting this reality. There’s is a deal of metaphysical and psychological insight, some game-playing and a few good one-liners, even if there is no real surprise in the narrative arc. But it does make you think and you do identify with the humanity inside these fabulous characters and there is an energy or, for want of a better term, a life-force, in the play which draws you in, despite the dramatic inertia. As someone who has veered rather too closely towards the guard-rails of mortality in recent years I could see what Ionesco was driving at. He does sound like a bit of a eeyore who spent too long pondering the big questions in life, (and here death), but we need people like that to spare us having to grapple with all this mind-f*cking stuff.

Exit the King is a tragedy played as a comedy and there is, as we know, a lot of fun to be had in that. It isn’t difficult to spot the parallels with the central concern of Lear say, albeit big Will shoves in a few other themes, (and Lear obviously has a fair dose of the absurd), as well as your man Beckett. I have to say though I found this easier to digest than Beckett, though I am no expert. Maybe that reflects the quality of the production but I think I would be keen to see this chap Berenger again, (apparently he crops up in other EO plays Rhinoceros, The Killer and A Stroll in the Air). I suspect that I won’t have too many opportunities to realise this dream, as this is not the sort of theatre to guarantee bums on seats, so I had better crack on with it.

Lurking behind this one-key morality tale Mr Marber does try to draw out a broader message. Just as when we individually die, we die – that’s it folks – and our lives don’t really matter, so it is the same for our species. Homo Sapiens will end with a slow whimper not a bang (technology I’m afraid is the enabler, not the saviour, of our destruction), and there will be no consciousness left to care or mourn. A combination of cynicism and stoicism is the only solution.

Have a nice day.

 

London theatre recommendations as at September 2018

London Back Street

One or two of you have ill advisedly remarked that I haven’t sent one of these out for a bit. Sorry I am just naturally indolent. 

Details below but for those of you who can’t be arsed to wade through all of that and trying to avoid the outre stuff, not taking any risks and highlighting stuff you could take your Mum to, here is the quick summary. 

Here’s the detail.

  • National Theatre. Some stuff is sold out but there is availability for Antony and Cleopatra, I’m Not Running, Stories, The Tell Tale Heart and Follies. 
    • Now Tony and Cleo is not Shakespeare’s finest hour – language is too flowery for my liking and no-one wants to see old folk getting it on – but with Ralph Fiennes and especially Sophie Okonedo in the leads then it should work but probably best left to Shakespeare nuts. 
    • David Hare always writes cracking state of the nation plays, here the politics of health, but probably worth waiting for the reviews.
    • Stories is the new play from Nina Raine. Looks like it is about IVF and having a baby late. Her last play, Consent, was an absolute belter. I would definitely give this a whirl. 
    • The Tell Tale Heart is the NT’s panto equivalent … but since it is based on an Edgar Allan Poe story and they are warning it is not for the faint hearted expect lots of fake blood and the like. Maybe worth a punt but these things can have a habit of disappointing.
    • Follies. If you haven’t seen Follies and you like musicals then you absolutely must. I hate musicals but was spell bound from start to finish. 
  • Barbican. I wouldn’t normally tried to tempt you to the Barbican with its RSC transfers and European arty stuff but there are a couple of possibilities.
    • The Merry Wives of Windsor. Coming from Stratford. Looks like the critics weren’t sure but the punters loved it. Shakespeare’s broad comedy made broader by being relocated in Essex. You can guess the rest. 
    • Medea. Not yet up on the Barbican website but my favourite company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, say they are bringing this over in March next year. If you have never seen a classic Greek tragedy look no further. Mandatory viewing.
  • The Wild Duck at the Almeida. Ibsen classic. Probably for those who already know what to expect but the twist is Robert Icke (Hamlet, 1984, Oresteia) directing so probably the subject of a radical rethink. The Almeida pretty much never disappoints so if you want a bit of Nordic tragi-comedy look no further. 
  • Bridge Theatre
    • I have banged on before about A Very, Very Dark Matter, the new play from Martin McDonagh which kicks off in October. He wrote and directed the films Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and In Bruges to give an idea of his black comedy and his last play Hangmen was the best we have seen in the last 3 years. Please go. 
    • Also Alan Bennett’s new play Allelujah about the NHS is on now. I haven’t seen it you but my spies really enjoyed it. The Bridge is London’s most comfortable theatre so don’t hold back. 
  • Nine Night at Trafalgar Studios. This is a transfer from the NT of Natasha Gordon’s debut play. It is about an extended British Jamaican family. It is superb and very funny. Traf Studios can be a bit greedy with pricing but I think it is worth it. 
  • An Adventure at the Bush Theatre. Always tricky to pick out fringey stuff but this look good. Written by Vinay Patel who did Murdered by My Father on the telly. Post colonial love story across the decades. maybe wait for reviews. Bush is a lovely friendly place and if you don’t mind where you sit (or actively wish to avoid sitting with your guests) then the Count Me In thing they do is only a tenner. Bargain. 
  • Dealing With Clair at the Orange Tree Theatre. There’s a whole bunch of goodies in the new season at the Orange Tree but I am most interested in this a revival of a play by Martin Crimp about estate agents in the 1980s. Crimp is a bit of an acquired taste, not entirely naturalistic dialogue. His new play When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other will come up at the NT (not yet booking) with no less than Cate Blanchett in the cast. 
  • Caroline or Change at the Playhouse Theatre. Transfer from Hampstead Theatre (in turn from Chichester). Musical about a Jewish family and their Black maid in the 1960s by Tony Kushner who is a genius. It is amazing. Sharon D Clarke in the lead is just extraordinary. Like I say I hate musicals but this brought a lump to my throat (and made me think). there are a few odd bits in it (singing washing machines) but that’s why it is so inventive. Avoid the cheap seats at the top in the Playhouse – only midgets will fit there.
  • Pinter at Pinter season. All of Harold Pinter’s one act plays at the theatre named after him. Amazing casts. If you like Pinter or want to find out if you do they are already discounting the first couple of collections. I am so excited about this though I get it if you ain’t. 

The End of the Pier at the Park Theatre review ****

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The End of the Pier

Park Theatre 200, 2nd August 2018

Comic gold is not universal. We all have a different take on what is funny. The casting of Les Dennis in Extras (S1 E4) as a washed up, needy TV star in a pantomime, whose young fiancee is copping off with a stagehand, was a stroke of genius by its creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Specifically the scene where he is literally baring his all to Gervais in the changing room is as funny as funny gets. As it turns out this was a turning point in Les’s life and career lifting him out of a dark period after a marital break-up (visible on the execrable Big Brother apparently). Ironic too that Messrs Gervais and Merchant’s own comedy oeuvres have been largely downhill since then.

Anyway it means that Jolly Les is surely the go to casting choice if you are writing and producing a play about a washed up comedian whose career comes crashing down after making a racist joke. Which is exactly what writer and director Danny Robins and Hannah Price did with The End of the Pier. More than enough to reel me and the SO in to seeing it.

The joy is that this is actually a pretty good play. Funny, insightful, well structured and with some strong performances and not just from Les. His character Bobby was part of an, unsurprisingly, Northern double act, Chalk and Cheese. From working men’s clubs through to Saturday Night TV stardom they had it all into the 1980s. Eddie Cheese, now dead, was an unrepentant racist bully but it is Bobby who ends up telling the (unheard) joke, perhaps against his better nature, which catapults their careers, just when the audience, thanks to alternative comedy, is moving on. The twist is that Bobby’s son, Michael, played by Blake Harrison, (you know Neil from The Inbetweeners), is also now a household name “observational” comedian, with a partner Jenna, (the very talented Tala Gouviea), who is a TV comedy commissioning executive and fully paid up member of the LME.

Now as I write this I can see that the set-up does all sound a bit predictable. But the way in which Mr Robins goes on to develop the set-up is anything but. The politics of comedy, (and race and class), are smartly pulled to pieces, the relationship between father and son is similarly dissected and there is a brilliantly funny ending courtesy of Nitin Ganatra, who plays Mohammed, a schoolmate of Michael who comes back to haunt him. OK so there are a couple of clunky McGuffins to facilitate some plot switchbacks, and Michael’s character turns a little too adroitly on a attitudinal sixpence towards the end, but no matter, as once it gets going this is thoroughly entertaining stuff. Danny Robins is not the only TV/radio sitcom writer to be commissioned for the Park stage but on the strength of this I bet he gets another crack at a full length play. He has an ear for dialogue and could certainly succeed with subtler fare. Mind you I have to admit that some of the funniest lines in the play are Bobby’s cringey old-skool one-liners.

Hannah Price, (who I think worked with no less than John Malkovich on his The Good Canary at the Kingston Rose last year), directs with vigour and does a pretty guide job of patching over the contrivances and James Turner’s set, which shifts from Bobby’s Blackpool flat to backstage at the studio where Michael’s show is filmed, has a real flair for detail. As an aside the designers for productions at the Park seem to me to always be very well served by those who put their sets together so a big shout out to the chippies and the rest of the team. In our performance there was a problem with the sound but the team soldiered on regardless and came up with a couple of belts and braces solutions when it mattered.

There are better plays which address the nature of comedy, Trevor Griffith’s masterful Comedians and Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny for example, but this is a very entertaining, if occasionally overly earnest, addition.

 

 

Greek at the Arcola Theatre review *****

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Greek

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 13th August 2018

It is a shame Steven Berkoff’s plays don’t get performed more often. They do, like the stage, film and TV villains he has memorably played, (there he is above doing the menacing thing), sometimes lapse into “in yer face” cliche, but at their best they are thrilling theatre. The verse plays, notably East, West and Decadence, are the most exciting, and Greek, which transports Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to East End London in the 1980s, was inspired. A few nips and tucks to make it fit but moreorless the same brilliant story. I love it, see here for the latest incarnation (Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****). Aristotle thought it was the greatest story ever told and he, being the cleverest bloke that ever lived, knew a thing or two.

More inspired still though was when young Essex lad. Mark-Anthony Turnage, just 28, announced himself to the world with an opera version of Berkoff’s already “musical” play. His mentor Hans Werner Henze suggested the Munich Biennale commission him, and Jonathan Moore helped him with the libretto and directed the premiere. And Mr Moore, no less, was back to direct this production. I was lucky enough to see the first revival in 1990 at the ENO and, I tell you, it blew my socks off. I knew it was possible for opera to be the best of art forms when I was a young’un but I had also been disappointed by some allegedly top notch productions of classics by the likes of Verdi, Puccini and, even, God forgive me, Wagner. I was bored witless by much of this nonsense. But Greek, as one of the first contemporary operas I saw, made me realise that it is the theatre that matters and not the singing. Not saying that when the singing, music and drama all come together I can’t be moved by “classic” opera, especially Mozart and Monteverdi, just that it is a lot easier when the stories stack up and mean something to me and the music isn’t just a bunch of whistling tunes all loosely stitched together.

Of course some buffs might not accept that Greek is an opera at all, more musical theatre in the manner of Brecht and Weill at their best. I see their point. Indeed M-AT, probably more to wind us all up, termed it an anti-opera. Anyway who cares. Greek was a punch in the gut and food for the brain first time round for sure. Mr Turnage, with his rock and jazz inflections, and his adoration of Stravinsky especially, and the likes of Britten and Berg, as well as teacher Oliver Knussen, knows how to compose for the theatre. I knew nothing about the source of his latest outing Coraline (Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****) so had no baggage and, whilst if might not be up to Greek and to his version of The Silver Tassie, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

No need to trot you through the story here in detail I assume. By having the lead, here named Eddie, living a life of frustration in Thatcher’s Britain, Berkoff and Turnage have a contemporary alternative for the plague afflicting Thebes. Mr Moore wisely sticks with the 1980s, no need to invoke “Austerity/Brexit” Britain, that would be crass, which designer Baska Wesolowska, through set and multiple costume changes, neatly evokes. Class relations, cultural impoverishment, addiction, the patriarchy, hopelessness are all revealed but never bog down the story.

The differences between “foundling” Eddy and his heavy drinking Mum and Dad, and Sister, are highlighted by their over the top, “gor-blimey, Eastender, chav, working class” dialogue (no arias here folks) and movements. Eddy is angry and frustrated with them so, after having his fortune told, understandably f*cks off to meet, then marry Wife/real Mum, after an ill-fated altercation with her first hubby in a caff. There’s a fair bit of cursing and violence and the still marvellous riot, Sphinx and “mad” scenes, where M-AT’s brilliantly percussive score is at its best. It is funny and aggressive by turns, is deliberately cartoonish, has some great tunes and musical, (and music-hall), echoes and it belts through the story. And there’s a twist as you might have guessed.

Edmund Danon was a perfect Eddy if you ask me. M-AT asks for a high baritone and that is what Mr Danon provides. Every word was clear as a bell and boy did he get round the Arcola space. As did baritone Richard Morrison as Dad (as well as the, in so many ways, unfortunate Cafe owner and the Police Chief). For choice I preferred the mezzo voice of Laura Woods as Wife, as well as sister Doreen, Sphinx I and Waitress I, over the purer soprano of Philippa Boyle as Mum, Sphinx II and Waitress II.

Greek is now a staple of the operatic circuit as it can reliably pull in younger punters to even the grandest of opera houses, (the ROH got on the bandwagon in 2011). Its physicality, irreverence, punky aesthetic and social commentary can appear a little quaint now, especially if it is “over-produced” in a big space. Which, once again shows why Grimeborn, and the Arcola, is the perfect setting for works like this. With the Kantanti Ensemble, founded by conductor Lee Reynolds to showcase the best young musicians in the South East, under the baton of Tim Anderson, by turns belting out, and reining in, the score, the toes of the audience at risk of crushing from the four performers bounding around the Arcola main stage, and with the original director in charge, this production stripped Greek back to where is should be. Another Grimeborn triumph.

I genuinely urge you to try and see this once in your life. Especially if you think opera is for w*ankers. You will be blown away without any need to reassess that, largely reasonable, preconception.

The Rape of Lucretia at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Rape of Lucretia

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 1st August 2018

The Rape of Lucretia is a story with a long historical and artistic pedigree. It lies at the heart of the creation legend of the founding of the Roman Republic in the late 500s BCE, was documented by Livy and Ovid, then St Augustine, appears in Dante, Chaucer and Lydgate, was the subject of a poem by Shakespeare, (and Lucretia was referenced in some of his plays), and was a staple of much Renaissance and later art, notably works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, old Cranach and Artemisia Gentileschi. The worst of these, depicting the rape, are violently voyeuristic, the best examine Lucretia’s subsequent suicide whilst avoiding gory titillation. Check out Rembrandt’s two takes on the latter, (see one above), Veronese’s and, best of all, Artemisia Gentileschi’s.

The story has undergone a few variations through the ages but, in the events of the Britten opera here, essentially runs like this. Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, is sent on a military errand where he meets up with Collatinus and Junius. They have a few beers, (or the Roman equivalent),  and get to discussing the chastity of the women of Rome. Junius goads Tarquinius into testing the virtue of Collatinus’s faithful wife Lucretia. Tarquinius rides to Collatinus’s house that night and the servants are obliged to let him in. He rapes Lucretia and leaves. Collatinus returns. He comforts her but she cannot bear the shame and commits suicide. Junius tries to atone for his involvement by sparking a rebellion against the King.

As you can see there are multiple perspectives for the creatives who take on this ugly story, and specifically this opera, to alight on. Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which in turn is based on the French play Le Viol de Lucrece by Andre Obey, uses the device of a Male and Female Chorus to frame the action and, incongruously to me, to tack on a Christian message, notably in the Epilogue, to the “pagan” tale. He also uses some pretty high-falutin’ and fancy language for both chorus and in the dialogue. It is easy to grasp what is going on but the florid text does sometimes get in the way a bit.

Fortunately though the genius of Mr Benjamin Britten is at hand. The Rape of Lucretia, like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw which we recently saw in the superb production at the Open Air Theatre (The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****), is a chamber opera scored for just thirteen instruments. As usual it took me 15 minutes or so to adjust to BB’s astounding mix of tonality, effect and experimentation but, once the ears were fully up and running, this music was as dazzling as I remembered. It has been a fair few years since the last performance I saw, (can’t actually remember where),  and I can’t say it is a turntable regular Chez Tourist, but, no matter, I was mesmerised. The Orpheus Sinfonia under Music Director Peter Selwyn, (who provided piano recitative accompaniment), were well up to the task and it was thrilling to hear the score in such an intimate space. The Sinfonia was founded to give an opportunity for talented young musicians to pursue a career that, trust me, they are doing for love not money. On this showing there are some fine talents here.

How then to deal today with what is plainly a deeply unsettling story? Britten was drawn to it as yet another “corruption of innocence” parable, the theme of so many of his operas. Yet I am not convinced that, as with those other operas, he fully thought through the perils of the material he was dealing with. Director Julia Burbach though made the most of the “universal” message that Duncan and Britten devised. The modern dress Male and Female Chorus, (here tenor Nick Pritchard and soprano Natasha Jouhl), open the opera by explaining how Rome under the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus is fighting off the Greeks and how the city has fallen into depravity. A Christian message for sure but as, subsequently, the two singers voice the thoughts of the male and female protagonists and move the story on, “out of time” as in classical Greek tragedy, a device to “explain” the motives and psychology of the characters and to involve us, the audience, in the action.

Fealty to Duncan’s libretto maybe means the production cannot resonant quite as volubly as it might have wanted to current MeToo awareness. Even so the drunken toxic masculinity, the fear that grips Lucretia and her two servants on Tarquinius’s arrival, the rape itself and Lucretia, broken, arranging flowers the next morning, are immensely powerful scenes reflecting the music, the acting and the movement of the characters and chorus under Julia Burbach’s direction. Having the Male and Female Chorus move through, and even at some points shape, the action was a smart move which offered insight.

I am not sure that any of this made the content of the story more palatable though and I can certainly understand why some may think this is an opera better left unstaged. I would suggest you see a production and decide for yourself though. This is not the only misogynistic opera: far from it. But when Lucretia, as here, is literally staring directly at you after the violence she suffers, it is impossible to ignore. And, when she dismisses Collatinus’s plea that Tarquinius’s action can be “forgotten”, the reason for her suicide is shifted from shame to anger.

The performances were uniformly excellent, particularly the two Chorus and contralto Bethan Langford as Lucretia. Bass Andrew Tipple was a deliberately vapid Collatinus, James Corrigan was a suitably odious Junius and a menacing Benjamin Lewis skilfully conveyed Tarquinius’s sickening importuning ahead of the rape. Claire Swale and Katherine Taylor-Jones both sang beautifully as Lucia and Bianca, Lucretia’s maid and nurse respectively. I am guessing that the performers had to take it down a notch or two in the Arcola space but what was lost in singing power was more than made up in clarity and immediacy.

The opera was staged as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival which is not into its 11th year with 55 performances across 17 productions. For those of us who cannot face, or afford, the trip to Glyndebourne, where this opera was premiered in 1946, Grimeborn offers a bloody marvellous alternative. The small space means poncey C19 boring opera is off the agenda or the creative teams have to aggressively rethink it. New interpretations and new work abound. Chamber opera is in its element. Everything comes alive and acting, not vocal histrionics or regie-directorial setting, takes centre stage. All for around 20 quid a pop or less if you arm yourself with an Arcola Passport which is simply the second best gift to culture on the planet, after the Arcola AD Mehmet Ergen who should be knighted this minute.

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Donmar Warehouse, 19th July 2018

The SO obviously is a big fan of Muriel Spark’s novel. We are both big fans of Ronald Neame’s film version, (only the other day I revisited this director’s magnificently cheesy The Poseidon Adventure), though let’s face it that is largely because Maggie Smith delivers a technicolour Maggie Smith performance. No less than David Harrower, (Knives in Hens, Dark Earth, Blackbird and some classic adaptions), was turning book into text here and Polly Findlay was directing. We have actors of the talent of Angus Wright, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Edward MacLiam and I was particularly keen to see Rona Morison again, who was so good in Orca at the Southwark Playhouse in 2016).

But, more than all of this, the big draw was Lia Williams in the title role. I believe Ms Williams is one of our finest stage actors, most recently seen in the Almeida’s Mary Stuart and Oresteia, (alongside Angus Wright as it happens), and, earlier in her career, Oleanna and Skylight. She is also a mean Pinterite, (if that is the word), and I am looking forward to her directing the opening salvo of plays in the upcoming Pinter season alongside Jamie Lloyd.

Now I had not remembered, from the film, just how ambiguously complex a character Ms Brodie is. An inspiration to the girls, (with Grace Saif, Emma Hindle, Nicola Coughlan, she who brilliantly told a twat of a critic where to get off in his insulting review, and Helena Wilson, all superb alongside Rona Morison’s Sandy), who genuinely wants to help then break free of stifling convention, but also manipulative, desperate, unfulfilled with a nasty undercurrent of fascist sympathy. David Harrower’s adaptation makes all this plain, without any need for histrionics, artfully augmented by Polly Findlay’s methodical direction and Lizzie Clachlan’s pared back design. His subtle inclusion of sub-plots involving Nicola Coughlan’s Joyce Emily, who is spurned by Sandy (and belittled by Miss JB) and goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and the framing device of Sandy’s book, worked for me.

Angus Wright as the long suffering, and increasingly frustrated music teacher Mr Lowther, and Edward MacLiam as the more volcanic, and damaged art teacher Teddy Lloyd, were admirable foils to Lia William’s Brodie as they vied for her complex affections. Miss Brodie affects to the aesthetic but real human connection seems to scare her. She provokes rebellion but is actually intellectually conservative. Maybe the guilt of Sandy, as the pupil who betrays Miss Brodie and enters a convent as penitence, (which we see in flash forwards through interviews with Kit Young’s journalist), was a little too forward in Mr Harrower’s adaptation, you know she is Miss Brodie’s nemesis from the off, but it does draw out the darkness in Miss JB’s psyche.

Lia Williams is up against some pretty stiff competition when it comes to theatrical Brodies even if we put Dame Maggie to one side. Vanessa Redgrave, Fiona Shaw and Patricia Hodge, as well as Geraldine McEwan on the telly, have all had a stab. I can’t comment on any of these performances but I can’t imagine they were any better at capturing Miss JB’s dichotomies than this.

With a bit of luck this will end up a run out in the West End. If so I heartily recommend you see it.