The Second Violinist at the Barbican review ***

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The Second Violinist

Barbican Theatre 7th September 2018

Ok so I bought a ticket here on a bit of a whim and because it garnered some awards on its premiere in Ireland. Now I know from past experience that the playwright Enda Walsh is not a man who likes to give audiences an easy night out. Disco Pigs is a belter of a play (and film) but, in trying to unravel the darker psychology and psychoses of the everyday, he sounds to me like the sort of dramatist who can be guilty of putting himself above the audience. All well and good if you like that kind of modern Expressionism but if it fails to connect what’s the point.

Still YOLO. What I hadn’t bargained for is just how good a composer Donnacha Dennehy is. This has all the trappings of a chamber opera. Except that there is a fair bit of spoken word, long periods of neither speech nor singing, though plenty to attract the eye and a main character who never opens his mouth. Which means the score has a lot of work to do and doesn’t always precisely articulate with the drama. But it is a fabulous score. Strains of post-minimalism (he studied with Louis Andriessen) with lots of sustained strings, micro-tonality galore, overtones, buckets of dramatic orchestration, hefty percussive rhythms, electronics, nods to Irish folk heritage, odd harmonies. As a rule of thumb if contemporary classical music grabs me by the throat on first listen for me there is something worth investigating. If there is no connection it can be safely discarded. No idea why or what lies behind that decision but this chap is definitely going to have to be listened to.

Now as for the play/drama/libretto I am less sure. Martin (Aaron Monaghan), emerging from the pit, is a violinist currently rehearsing (badly) a chamber opera with an unhealthy interest in bad-boy Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance prince and composer who mastered dissonance (please listen) but was a bit unhinged to say the least. (there he is above). Martin is not a happy bunny it seems and there is plenty of evidence in his drinking, movement, his calls, game-playing and his digital footprint to show it. But he doesn’t show us directly. Instead we get a drunken night in from Matthew (Benedict Nelson), wife Hannah (Maire Flavin) and her friend Amy (Sharon Carty) who Matthew makes a move on. It doesn’t end well. Presumably this is an acting out of the events that got Martin into the pickle he is in. Or maybe they are the neighbours from hell that Martin really doesn’t need. At the end, in a wood, Martin meets Scarlett (Kimani Arthur) a Tinder chum. Oh and there is a chorus to vocalise some things and to shuffle across the stage.

Though frankly I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. For someone who was effectively a mime artist Aaron Monaghan, apart from some suspect writhing, caught Martin’s dissolution brilliantly. The three singers were crystal clear though their texts were prosaic. The set (Jamie Vartan), lighting (Adam Silverman), video (Jack Phelan) and sound (David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson), all seemed to have a lot to say. I just don’t really know what they were saying. If it was just the breakdown of a life then I suppose it delivered but since I couldn’t find a way in I couldn’t really care. Maybe Martin was looking for beauty in an ugly world, a creative mind that is constantly disappointing himself, (this seems to be what Enda Walsh is driving at in the programme), but any meaning was too impenetrable for me. Past, present and, maybe, future frustratingly elided.

Plenty to look at and a ravishing score but as a work of drama … hmmm. No matter. The score, which really did make the link back to Gesualdo, and the playing of Crash Ensemble under conductor Ryan McAdams alone was enough.

Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review *****

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Copenhagen

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 6th September 2018

Michael Frayn wrote the funniest stage comedy of all time. Noises Off. OK well maybe it is only is the funniest of those comedies that I have seen. And maybe the two productions that I have seen, the NT one from 2000/2001 directed by Jeremy Sams, and the 2011/2012 Old Vic revival directed by Lindsay Posner, show it off to best effect. And the fact that Mr Frayn has sharpened it up with re-writes since it first appeared in 1982 helps. It is a farce about a farce about a farce and is brilliantly constructed. For sure the belly aches come from the visual humour and slapstick but real comedy also emerges from the characters “on” snd “off” stage personas and their relationships. Everyone should see this once in their life, (but not the film version – the whole point of this is that it is a theatrical experience and the film is rubbish). LD remembers it as the funniest thing she has seen on stage and she was only 10 at the time.

We also have to thank Mr Frayn for his pitch perfect English adaptations of Chekhov. The magic of Chekhov can prove elusive but a text from MF gives a good chance for a production of walking the tightrope between pathos and comedy. There are his novels as well. I have though, until now, never seen either of his more recent dramatic triumphs, Democracy or Copenhagen.

So thanks to Chichester Festival Theatre for putting on this revival. And to recruiting a cast of the calibre of Charles Edwards, Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson. And to persuading, if he needed persuading, Michael Blakemore, who directed the NT premiere in 1998 to wave his magic directorial wand over this revival.

Copenhagen is not quite a perfect play. But it is so close that it barely matters. Mr Frayn is a very, very clever man. So naturally he takes a very, very big subject for Copenhagen. The is the imagined conversation between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Nazi occupied Copenhagen during WWII about whether eminent nuclear physicists could or should attempt to prevent the building of a nuclear bomb. The exact circumstances of the meeting in 1941 are unclear from their writings, though Bohr seemed to react angrily to whatever Heisenberg brought to him, and there has been much subsequent debate, in part fuelled by MF’s play, about exactly what happened. Out of this admittedly dramatic conceit MF constructs a play of intense philosophical enquiry, offers us both a science and a history lesson, shows the loving and fraught relationships between the eminent Bohr (then 55), his wife and amanuensis Margarethe and his one time student Heisenberg (39), and. as if that wasn’t enough, reminds us of the tension between the “objective” universe around us and our “subjective” view of that world that our consciousness constructs.

The memories of the meeting between the two physicists are played out in various ways, three times “another draft”. Time is not linear. We see several versions of events. The protagonists do not always occupy the same time and place. It is not always clear if they are talking to each other or to us the audience. This “plot” and the movement of the actors mirrors the behaviour of atomic particles in Peter J Davison’s monochromatic set. Did Heisenberg come to warn Bohr and, by implication, the allies about the Nazi nuclear programme? Or did he just want approval from his mentor? Or was he fishing for technical information on what was needed to trigger the required chain reaction? Did Bohr put him off the scent? How fervent was Heisenberg’s patriotism? Or his morality? Was he oblivious to what his country was doing? Did he help the half-Jewish Bohr and Margarethe escape from Denmark? How “guilty” did the scientists feel when looking back and are they trying to assuage that guilt – it was Bohr who ended up in Los Alamos after all?

MF cleverly uses anecdotes and the past history of the three protagonists to draw parallels with the scientific concepts they discuss. Skiing and table tennis act as metaphors to contrast the two men’s characters and approaches to scientific enquiry as well as a way in to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s complementarity principle. A pre-war train journey by Bohr shows how electron spin theory was disseminated across Europe and his movements mirror that of the particles he describes. A card game where Bohr bluffs by mistake points up the risk of nuclear proliferation. Toys and weapons are elided. The death by drowning of one of Bohr’s sons, Christian recurs as a motif for what might have happened if someone or something had intervened. (The video backdrop courtesy of Nina Dunn has a lot of waves, alluding to the drowning and presumably wave theory). There’s probably loads more I missed.

Even with these “simplifying” devices, (which, as the two scientists remind each other to revert to “plain” language for Margarethe’s sake, can sometimes patronise), this is dense stuff. But it doesn’t feel like it. Aside from one tiny slip, Paul Jesson as Bohr and, especially, Charles Edwards as Heisenberg, are utterly on top of the language, and Michael Blakemore’s direction ensures the delivery is perfectly placed. Patricia Hodge avoids smothering Margarethe with an overly haughty demeanour, protective of her husband and suspicious of Heisenberg, the nucleus revealing the human failings of both.

As I understand it, and I don’t, the Copenhagen Interpretation was proposed by Bohr and Heisenberg before the war as a way to reconcile different theories of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities of what might happen in physical systems. The act of measurement affects the system to reduce to the one result that is observed. Like what MF is doing with the play. With us doing the measuring. Though we cannot be sure of the result.

Big ideas, and especially big scientific ideas, can often lead to big drama. But dramatists can often overreach themselves or retreat back into the human and not push us intellectually as hard as they should. Copenhagen, like Brecht’s Life of Galileo, doesn’t make that mistake. One of the best plays I have ever seen and, once fizzing, a near perfect production.

 

The Height of the Storm at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Height of the Storm

Richmond Theatre, 5th September 2018

I can’t deny that Florian Zeller is a gifted playwright. I am just not sure his work is for me. I saw The Father at this very house in 2016 with Kenneth Cranham in the lead role. Centering on an old fella with Alzheimers allowed Mr Zeller acres of space to deploy his trademark philosophical musings and play games with time and memory. Mr Cranham was great but all that deliberating about what you could and could not believe got a bit samey after a while.

Well he, and his translator Christopher Hampton, are at it again in The Height of the Storm. The nature of memory, the effects of ageing, the making of self, the cracks in a family, all are confronted again, but here set against a love story. Jonathan Pryce is Andre, a retired writer, who has been married to Madeleine, played by Eileen Atkins, for five decades. They live in a large country house in provincial France. Divorced daughter Annie (Amanda Drew) arrives for the weekend. It looks like she is pushing for the house to be sold. Later on younger daughter Elise (Anna Madeley) also pitches up with current estate agent boyfriend (James Hillier) in tow.  A bunch of flowers is delivered. A neighbour and apparent long-standing “friend” of Andre played by Lucy Cohu pops in. But it isn’t very long before we begin to wonder if Madeleine is really there or whether disorientated Andre just imagines her presence and whether the cosy conversations they are having are simply the memories of his now dead wife. Or maybe it is the other way round?

Mr Zeller quite rightly recognises that theatre is all about suspending rationality and playing games with “truth”. And Height of the Storm certainly messes with your head. He writes beautifully but presenting such uncertainty made me, well, uncertain about whether this was entirely satisfying. However the play certainly creates an atmosphere. The set design of Anthony Ward, the kitchen of the family home, is exquisite. The lighting and sound designs of Hugh Vanstone and Paul Groothuis respectively are equally ravishing. Obviously director Jonathan Kent is exemplary – this sort of drama is his meat and drink. And I could watch Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins all day. Mr Pryce exactly shows us how Andre is lost without Madeleine and Ms Atkins in turn shows Madeleine’s fortitude. Florian Zeller was inspired to write the play when he saw an elderly couple cling together as they crossed a road from the window of a Paris hotel on the day of his own wedding. They had become “one being” and that is exactly what the play conjures up and these two masterly actors portray. The desolation of losing the one you love.

There is something powerful at work here and if you want to see two outstanding stage actors at the top of their game, (supported by excellent supporting performances), effortlessly directed then this is for you. At 90 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just be prepared though for that “what was going on there then” feeling as you leave.