OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

OthelloMacbeth

Lyric Hammersmith, 8th October 2018

OK so this has its moments. By splicing together Othello and Macbeth, excising out extraneous context, sub-plot and characters, director Jude Christian has largely succeeded in achieving what she set out to do. That is to recast the two famous tragedies from the perspective of the female protagonists, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, the Ladies Macbeth and Macduff and, with a twist, the Three Witches. Without messing too much with the main plots. And with some occasionally breathtaking transfer of lines from one play to the other. However it is the Macbeth half that gets the best of the treatment, in large part because it benefits most from Basia Binkowska novel set design as it opens up. And this is definitely not for the purists who relish the verse. (I overhead some grumbling on the way out).

In part this reflected the cuts, in part the slightly uneven verse delivery on show and in part what happens when the psychological insight offered up by Shakespeare’s “roundest” characters is sold short. Samuel Collings as Iago/Macduff and, especially, Ery Nzaramba as Othello/Banquo had the most to lose. On the other hand there was much to learn from Kirsten Foster’s alert Desdemona and Caroline Faber’s measured Lady M, and the Witches, our two/three murdered/abused women from Othello. For this conceit, their revenge, as they unleash Lady M’s “unsex me now” monologue, and strumming on high pitched wires, is both clever and, in part, insightful.

Nagging away at me though is the belief that Shakespeare did offer up multiple vistas into what these women saw and felt whilst still getting on with the business of showing us that ambition, violence and jealousy are intrinsic, if ugly, facets of the human condition. I am not arguing that Shakespeare’s treatment of his female characters should be excused, the body count and violence meted out to them, tells its own story, just that, as in some much of his writing, there is insight and ambiguity when you look for it. And at least he has the excuse of history. The men today who continue to “fridge” women do not. After all Jude Christian in this mash-up, by using WS’s lines, is only highlighting what is already there in the text.

The cur-down version of Othello doesn’t need to tell us why “the Moor” is so hated, nor to have Iago poisoning his and our ears, but without it they come across a bit cartoonish. They are basically wankers from the off. The harsh brushed metal wall, there to mask the Macbeth reveal, only serves to highlight the static staging, and rushed delivery, with very rapid jump–cuts, of the first half of the first play. It does heat up post hanky mind you. Sandy Grierson squeezes a lot out of Cassio as do Kezrena James as Bianca and, especially, Melissa Johns as a blunt no-nonsense Northerner Emilia, who can sense what is coming. But this is maybe more to do with the “air-time” they have relative to standard interpretations rather than the actors really finding something new to say in the characters.

Sandy Grierson’s Macbeth does convince, because we know what to expect, because the call-back is more profound, because his is a fine performance and because the relationship with Caroline Faber’s Lady M stacks up. The early filleting of the text is less distracting, the motives of the power couple are still examined. Ms Faber makes chilling sense of the final Othello speech which falls to her. Even so at the end of the day it is Lady M who hatches the murderous plan, even if the narrative here is revenge for the wrongs of the first half. Once again I think there is more than enough complexity in Lady M as written by the Bard to make Jude Christian’s re-direction superfluous. Watch Judi Dench at work if you don’t believe me.

So a successful exercise on its own terms. I am just not sure that those terms were entirely necessary. New plays by women, telling women’s stories, with women creatives, would be more fruitful I think. (Lela & Co by Cordelia Lynn for example which Jude Christian directed). Or Jude Christian let loose on either one of this plays. Or a Caryl Churchill classic for example. This strand of wilful innovation has dogged the last few years of Sean Holmes’s stewardship of the Lyric. It hasn’t always worked as here. It will be interesting to see who, and what, comes next. It is a lovely theatre, thanks in large part to Mr Holmes’s industry, which deserves the best.

 

Peer Gynt at the Arcola Theatre review ***

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Peer Gynt

Arcola Theatre, 5th October 2018

I have never seen Ibsen’s Peer Gynt before. In retrospect a minimalist two hander, a “daring realisation”, by “internationally acclaimed” German company Theater an der Ruhr, might have been a somewhat challenging place to start. Still what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or whatever the theatrical equivalent of that maxim happens to be.

And there was much of value to take away from this production. But let’s start with the play. Given that he was the “father of realism”, Peer Gynt is a bit of a departure. A sprawling fantasy in Danish verse about an oddball whose grip on reality is far from secure. It is based on a Norwegian fairy tale, though it contains echoes of HI’s own life, with family members written in. It has elements of a romance, like Will Shakespeare’s last outings with Pericles, The Tempest and Cymbeline, lightly concealed satire on Norwegian insularity, strikingly surreal scenes immediately contrasted with natural, contemporary drama. It tracks the life and, presumed death (it isn’t explicit) of our Peer across 40 scenes which utterly disregard the normal conventions of staged theatre. HI saw it as a lyric poem. I bet he would be surprised at just what a hold it has in the canon.

That’s probably the case because, I gather, there are so many ways for creatives to impose meaning on this “masterpiece”. In fact there is just so much “theatre” that can be thrown at this piece of theatre. Peer is a waster and a drunk early on but he can tell stories. There is a persistent, emotional, and maybe futile for Solvieg, love story. There are trolls, and a half human, half troll baby, always a crowd pleaser. There is much philosophising on the nature of existence and reality. there’s all manner of Freudian interpretation. Peer is the ultimate egotist. Who loves Mummy. There is a swipe at capitalism, laced with overt racism. There is a madhouse. A travelogue. A shipwreck. And, at the end, an overtly Christian reckoning and possible epiphany. He might have been dreaming. Or he might have been extravagantly alive.

So you can see HI packed it in. One way to present this is to assemble a wide cast and let the creative minds loose to do their best, or worst. I hope to see such a production. (I see the NT has commissioned a new, contemporary adaptation by David Hare for 2019. There is a man who can do sprawling). Every year in Vinstra in the middle of Norway they stage a giant production as part of the Peer Gynt festival, this being the place where the chap on which the character might be based hails from. Never been there but will add it to the bucket list along with Borgund Stave Church. I remember my first holiday, a cruise along the Norwegian coastline with 600 post pubescent teens on the SS Uganda. We saw Greig’s house, he of the Peer Gynt suites. And in today’s athomehefeelslikeatourist list of cultural coincidences it was Greig’s Holberg Suite that I had the pleasure of listening to last night.

Enough rambling. So I suppose the other, perhaps trickier way, to stage the play is like this. Minimal props, table. chairs, a bed, two actors dressed in the monochrome suits which spell Lutheran phlegm. With the actors, Roberto Ciulii and Maria Neumann, taking on all the parts, and even sharing the role of Peer himself.  Vital then to know your stuff so I was handsomely rewarded for boning up on the plot beforehand. I highly recommend this strategy for the classics. Here it was a life-saver. Well OK maybe that is an exaggeration, it was only 90 minutes after all. But it certainly made for a much clearer understanding as, whilst the plot is pretty much intact, the dialogue has been ruthlessly sharpened, and even more so in translation to sur-titles.

So I kind of worked out where we were, and what was going on. despite the limited display. Not sure everywhere in the audience was so lucky/prepared. You certainly cannot take your eyes off Roberto Ciulii, the Italian founder of Theater an der Ruhr with Helmut Schafer in 1981, and long time ensemble member Maria Neumann. They are mesmeric. Both are possessed of extraordinarily expressive faces, and Ms Neumann in particular is an amazingly physical and tactile presence. Major and minor changes in intonation and body shape indicate character changes. Dialogue, monologue and narrative intermingle. There are a few jokes. But the stripped back aesthetic, the small space, the absence of visual cues and distraction, together with the barrier of translation, however idiomatic Signor Cuilli’s text, can veer towards the monotonous. Not in a dull way. Just in a way that I suspect re-calibrates the dimensions of the play. Mind you this is what TadR sets out to do. A company that sets out to make theatre that can travel and abhors hierarchy. In a lovely looking building in a park in Mulheim near Duisberg (look see above).

The absence of spectacle does allow a focus on exactly how Peer’s identity is constructed. Is his life defined by what has happened to him, or what he has made happen? Is he, with all his obvious flaws, still to be admired, or is he just a bit of a knob? Is reality out there or just what goes on in our heads? See that’s what happens when you go to North London with other culturally aware trendies to watch modernist German theatre. If you are a real pseud, like someone here, you even buy a German programme for no apparent reason.

So a worthwhile journey for me. And for Peer. Whoever he was.

 

The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

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The Jungle

Playhouse Theatre, 4th October 2018

So this was my second attempt to see The Jungle. I had to bail out of the first halfway through as my back wasn’t up to squatting on the floor of the Young Vic. This is not a complaint. Given the subject it is a shameful indictment of just how privileged I am to have come this far in life, and to be this stuffed with entitlement, that I can’t even sit through a couple of hours of theatre without complaining. What a pr*ck.

Given that I couldn’t find a way of getting to see another performance in the Young Vic run I was relieved when this transfer to was announced. This time I was able to secure a more suitable berth in the “Cliffs of Dover” in a Playhouse Theatre transformed by Miriam Buether’s remarkable set. For make no mistake this is a simply marvellous piece of critical theatre. The posters advertising the play highlight the string of 5* reviews. Believe them. There are a few seats left in the remaining weeks. Grab one as I doubt, given the size, and diversity of the cast, that this will be easily staged again in the near future. It is off to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn so any New Yorkers reading this really have no excuse.

Anyone who vituperatively blathers on about “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” should be made to see this. It probably won’t change their minds, lack of empathy often runs deep, but it might force them to consider, at least for a couple of hours, an alternative, and human, point of view. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson have written a “history” of the expansion of the refugee camp at Sangatte to over 6000 people, the eponymous Jungle, in the 18 months prior to its clearance by police in October 2016. (Though there are now still a couple of thousand people living rough in the area).

The two Joes set up the Good Chance theatre in the camp. They are now working in Paris. Read about them here. https://www.goodchance.org.uk/. Then give them some money.

This story is largely told through the relationship of two key characters, Syrian wordsmith Safi, who also acts as narrator, and Salar, the de facto leader of the Afghan community and the founder of the restaurant, The Afghan Cafe, the subject of the famous review by AA Gill, which is the setting for the action. Other members of the various communities, a French official and those who came to help, are also lucidly portrayed. In all there are some 23 named roles permanently occupying the “promenade” stage and its various interstices. With the audience seated around them though it often feels like more.

Directors Stephen Daldry, (who only ever deals in theatrical gold now), and Justin Martin have conjured up a riot of movement, sound, dance, music, video, conflict, language and costume, with the help of some of the best in the business (Paul Arditti, Jon Clark and Terry King for instance). The cast is superb. I would pick out Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Ben Turner as Salar, Rachel Redford as idealist teacher Beth, Nahel Tzegai as the calming Helene and Dominic Rowan as the rational Derek, but frankly the whole ensemble is beyond committed.

The thing is though that beyond the production, the activity, the atmosphere of spontaneity, the performance, the polemic, the vital message of hope and despair, there is a bloody fantastic play here. Vivid human emotions are laid bare in just a few lines. The debate between the “optimist” Safi and the “realist” Mahmoud as to how to respond to their situation is electric. The suffering, and salvation, of the Sudanese teenager Okot (John Pfumojena, is humbling. The pride and determination of the camp is palpable. The motives of the volunteers are examined. The conflicts between communities are revealed. Individual journeys are graphically relayed. No-one leaves family, work, culture, community, education, society because they want to nick your hospital bed or school place, people of Britain. They come because the alternative is harassment, dislocation, destitution, torture or worse. Escaping a war zone or failed state is an act of desperation not a punt on economic advancement. And Britain is a destination because we are, (or were), tolerant and we have the language. Those should be reasons to be proud. Not running away and seeking two fingers up to the rest of Europe (and the world).

Throughout the play 6 year old Little Amal (Erin Rushidi I think at the performance I attended) flits wordlessly around the action. Apparently we tried, and try, to prevent these little kids getting to relatives in the UK. Breaks your heart.

The Malady of Death at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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The Malady of Death

Barbican Theatre, 3rd October 2018

I took a bit of persuading (of myself, by myself, this was never going to be an easy sell to any of the usual companions) to pitch up to this. No doubting the pedigree of the creative team. Alice Birch, (Lady Macbeth, Anatomy of a Suicide, Ophelia’s Zimmer, Revolt She Said Revolt Again), adapting Marguerite Duras’ 1982 novella which tells the story of a man who pays a woman to spend weeks with him so that he can “learn” how to love. Directed by Katie Mitchell, no introduction needed. Under the auspices of the legendary Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. And which came to London, via Edinburgh, with some fulsome reviews.

Of course the subject, a “provocative” dissection of the male gaze, complete with nudity, live video and on-stage narration from French acting royalty in the form of Irene Jacob (Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Double Life of Veronique, Three Colours Red), screams controversial. Nick Fletcher was The Man, holed up in a hotel room by the sea, watching pornography, desperate to “feel” something, and motivated, by the “malady of death”, I guess his own empty alienation, to “use” Laetitia Dosch’s The Woman, who has her own childhood trauma to excise. By examining the narrative of the story from both perspectives, literally using the video projection, we get to ponder just who has agency here in an intimate relationship between man and women. Alice Birch has re-written The Woman as a sex worker and single mother, (M. Duras reveals nothing of her background), to open out the correspondence and, as the nights progress, there is a clear shift in power even though She can offer no resistance or make no sound. When she finally does it is to goad and diagnose him.

Now there is no denying that this is an impressive technical achievement as the two camera-people (one man, one woman) and stage managers, as well as the actors, shift balletically through Alex Eales’ set (he also designed the costumes, such as they were). The live video was mixed seamlessly with pre-recorded footage (the sea, flashbacks of the Woman’s childhood) in Ingi Bekk’s design under Grant Gee’s direction. Paul Clark’s composition, Donato Wharton’s sound and Anthony Doran’s detailed lighting all added to the sense of clinically polished auteurship. Unfortunately for me this triumph of style, together with the narration and sur-titles, (the production is in French natch), only served to add distance to this indeterminate story. For such an intense subject it all felt curiously lifeless and maybe just a little, dare I say it, passe. These techniques can illuminate, here they served to obfuscate. Of course this idea of how the Man and the Woman “see” each other in an intimate, here transactional, relationship, is expanded through the use of video. A series of screens and compartments on stage push the audience into making choices about what to watch. At one point The Man using his phone to film the Woman in turn filmed by the cameras. Points made though there feels like there is nowhere else for us to go.

I suppose this inauthenticity, the absence of true emotion, the detachment, the sense of voyeurism, (a parody of art-house porn), exactly reflects what M. Duras was trying to say, but it does make for un-involving theatre. In stark contrast to Alice Birch and Katie Mitchell’s last outing, Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court, one of last year’s best, and most emotionally involving, plays (Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre review *****). It could be that my own identity leaves me entirely unequipped to understand the narrative here. Certainly worth a look. After all if I don’t challenge myself then how will I be, er, challenged.

The Humans at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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The Humans

Hampstead Theatre Main Stage, 3rd October 2018

Sometimes it can feel like the whole history of US theatrical drama is one long story of family dysfunctionality. Mind you you can see why. When it works, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Shepherd, Wilson, Kushner, to name a few, it is hard to top. The immediacy and thrill of recognition, with the visceral power of the Greeks. Ideally you need some fairly immediate character flaws, a specific social and/or economic milieu and enough humour to leaven the tragedy. Then you can hit the jackpot of “state-of-the-nation” relevance with “deep, psychological” human insight. That’s why playwrights keep plugging away. at the genre

Of course the drawbacks can be obvious. Indulgence seasoned with too much autobiography, bombast, captivity of form and an all round failure to recognise that what you think is a resonantly universal experience may actually be just plain bloody dull to the audience.

The Humans came with some cracking reviews out of NYC, four Tony Awards and full houses through its runs and tour. Edward Hall, who is off to pastures new having transformed the HT, treading a fine line between the popular and the pioneering, says he was desperate to nab this for the HT. Then again he says that about everything he has imported from the US. Here though the Roundabout Theatre production has come hook, line and sinker from Broadway with cast, director, Joe Mantello, and creatives, David Zinn (scenic), Sarah Laux (costume), Justin Townsend (lighting), Fitz Pattton (sound). And I suspect that is what made all the difference.

The Humans starts in the most cliched fashion. The Blake family meets for Thanksgiving. In the recently acquired Chinatown basement duplex flat of voluble, fervent daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele), who is recently married to the assiduous, slightly superior Richard Saad (Arian Moayed). Solicitous Mum Dierdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and decent Dad Erik (Reed Birney) have come to the city from Pennsylvania with wheelchair-bound grandma Fiona “Momo” (Lauren Klein). They are joined by big sister Aimee (Cassie Beck). Cue a round of rapid family banter as the parents bemoan the location of the flat, Grandma’s incapacities are revealed and Aimee’s work pressures highlighted. All robust, knockabout stuff, very witty, but you have heard it a million times. Then slowly, but surely, perspectives begin to shift. In entirely naturalistic fashion we get see the financial, emotional and intellectual pressures and insecurities weighing down on this all-American family, so that, like the best of these sort of plays, it holds up a mirror to contemporary US society. At the same time a faint sense of unease, the uncanny, starts to pervade the flat. Not quite with the same intensity as say, Annie Baker’s John (John at the National Theatre review *****), but, with the building itself burbling and croaking, lights flickering, enough to add a further, if not in my view entirely successful, dimension.

The play is in real time, though the family let a lot of food go to waste (!), and the revelations tumble out in an entirely believable way. Brigid’s creative frustrations and Richard’s never-ending studying. Aimee’s girlfriend troubles, her partner has just left her, and illness is set to curtail her banking career. But it is Mum and Dad’s troubles, and the need to care for grandma, which most bring home the precariousness of life for even “middle” Americans. Depression, dementia, illness, making ends meet, rejection, even bowel problems, get a look in, but this is a play that never feels dour. Nor is it some bash-you-over-the-head polemic. These are still people you very quickly care for and hope that things get better for them. The ups, and downs, and general messiness, of family are adroitly set out. Love, and resilience, might just see them through. Or maybe not, since resolution does not follow revelation.

All this in just 90 minutes. And all thanks to the writing talent of Stephen Karam. It will probably come as no surprise, based on the above, when I tell you that Mr Karam’s last stage outing in 2016, (The Humans dates from 2014), was an adaptation of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, and that his was the pen behind the recent screen version of The Seagull, (which got so-so reviews, so has been relegated to my Netflix list). Tragicomedy is his thing, and his ear for the way people who are close actually converse, cross-talking, sniping, apologising, is remarkable. And it is razor-sharp funny.

The performances are outstanding. Timing is impeccable, like clockwork. I guess no great surprise given how long the company have been together on the play but it is still as strong an ensemble as you are ever likely to see. Many of them have worked before with the playwright and Arian Moayed who plays Richard even roomed with Stephen Karam at college apparently. The set, on two levels, joined by a spiral staircase, is sublime, and, with the harsh artificial lighting, conjures up the kind of grim, monochrome, institutional atmosphere that, even when the couple have unpacked, can never truly become a “home”. The six family members are, with some cleverly crafted exceptions, always on stage, there are no breaks or fades here, but the set means we can also see where they are not as it were, the empty rooms, which adds to the sense that of this not being your standard family drama, all crammed into one room.

I am assuming that Stephen’s Karam’s previous full length plays, Speech and Debate, centred on three misfit teenagers, and Sons of the Prophet, a story about a Lebanese- American family (reflecting his own Maronite Christian heritage), haven’t yet crossed the Atlantic. Based on The Humans I think there is a more than fair case for some-one putting that right. Thanks to Edward Hall I have seen a number of excellent plays at Hampstead Theatre from US playwrights in the last couple of years: Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess, Describe The Night by Rajiv Joseph, Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and a brace of Tony Kushner’s. And now this.  I do hope his successor carries on the tradition.

 

Holst’s The Planets: BBCSO at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus (women’s voices), Professor Brian Cox, Ben Gernon

Barbican Hall, 29th September 2018

I wasn’t quite sure of what the format would be for this performance of Holst’s The Planets. Maybe a quick intro from our most famous and telegenic physicist, then a work-out for the BBCSO under Guest Conductor Ben Gernon, with a few unspecified other repertoire to be tacked on. What I hadn’t bargained for was a full-on lecture preceding each of the seven movements with state-of-the-art slide-show accompaniment showcasing some of the most famous images of our solar system.

It was therefore a very pleasant surprise. The Hall was packed to the rafters and, this being The Planets with a famous bloke off the telly, there was a far more diverse audience than you normally see at the Barbican or the South Bank. And my, my, did I learn a lot. Although I confess I can’t remember it all. The point is that Prof Cox, with his dulcet Manc tones, his child-like enthusiasm and his preposterous hair-cut is just the man to show us how the latest scientific understanding of our solar system, drawn from all that hard- and soft- ware sent out over the last four decades to examine it, both connects to, and contradicts, the more mystical and conjectural view prevalent in the early C20 when Holst wrote his masterpiece.

Holst, with his attachment to English folk-song and Eastern mysticism, was a curious fellow in some ways. Swedish extraction, frail constitution, mates with Vaughan-Williams, teacher at St Pauls Girls School, as fancy as it gets even then, nice gaff looking over the Thames in Barnes, committed socialist. An interest in theosophy, a right rag-tag of funny ideas as far as I can tell, but which had quite a hold over the Western creative community in the inter-war period.

His music is pretty curious as well. Uncertain tonalities, modal expressions, the kind of counterpoint more typical of medieval forms, irregular and often belting rhythms, ear-catching dissonance. It all tumbled out in The Planets, which itself it as big a subject as you can imagine for programmatic music. No surprise that it was such a success when finally completed in 1917, bolstering his career and reputation, and no surprise it is so popular today. Its best ideas might now appear to be a field full of hackneyed war-horses but, if you step back from the familiar, it still has the power to wow especially, I think, in the slower passages. At the time it was as “modern” as Debussy or Stravinsky, and, like them, its influence on “everyday” classical music now, is inescapable. No Planets, no fantasy film scores.

Holts’s starting point was the elemental character of each of the seven planets which is what lies behind astrology, (connected to this theosophy caper apparently). All b*llocks obviously, even at the time, but Holst believed it. And believing in the power of the planets to influence us did give a starting point for Holst to set out what he saw as important facets of the human condition: War (Mars), Peace (Venus), Messenger (Mercury), Jollity (Jupiter), Old Age (Saturn), Magician (Uranus), Mystic (Neptune), Scoff all you like but this nonsense also meant that, on this night, the exact centenary, Prof Cox could then riff on how far we have come in our understanding of what makes up our solar system, and that more existential question, what other life might be, or have been, out there.

The BBCSO, (with the female voices of the choir for the final wordless chorus in Neptune) was on top form and threw itself into the hyped-up interpretation under Ben Gerson. With the movements broken up by Prof Cox’s oration it was important to establish momentum in each of the movements tout suite as it were. After all the whole piece clocks in at just under an hour with only Saturn and Venus getting anywhere near the 10 minute mark. Easy enough to quickly stake your claim on the thunderous toccata of Mars, (here claimed as a wider critique of industrial capitalism and not just the horror of mechanised warfare), the carnival scherzo of Jupiter, the bitonal dance of Mercury or the sardonic fantasy of Uranus. I have to say though that the BBCSO was actually most convincing in the nagging processional of Saturn and the endless hush of Neptune which take more time to overawe.

All up a splendid idea. Of course individually the images, the music and the lecture might have had more lasting impact, but put them all together and a deeper impression was created. It would be nice if we humans could keep our sh*t together long enough to find out if we are not alone.

The Cardinal’s Musick at Wigmore Hall review ****

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The Cardinal’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director)

Wigmore Hall, 27th September 2018

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Motet Tu es Petrus, Missa Tu es Petrus, Gregorian Chant, Magnus Sanctus Paulus a 8
  • Giovanni Bassano – O Rex gloriae
  • Jacob Handl – Sanctus Bartholomeus
  • Thomas Crecquillon – Andreas Christi famulus
  • Tomás Luis De Victoria – Vidi speciosam
  • Francisco Guerrero – Virgo prudentissima
  • Sebastián de Vivanco – Magnificat octavi toni

More people should hand themselves over to the musicianship and scholarship of the best of British Renaissance vocal ensembles such as The Cardinal’s Musick or The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen. Or, on those rarer occasions, when the best of their European cousins pop over. (Let us hope that isn’t made prohibitively difficult by the clusterf*ck that is Brexit though I suspect nothing would give greater pleasure to the never-happy social conservatives than watching us metropolitan liberals lose the opportunity to listen to such poncey, suspect singing).

Surely, it is impossible not to like complex polyphony sung by experts. Of course you could invest some time into learning about the composers of this ravishing music and the context in which it was created. As the canon of Renaissance music has expanded so too has our knowledge about those who created it, though biographical details are normally scant. Some vague-ish birth and death dates, a list of where they trained and what positions they held and what patrons they, (and by implication we), need to be grateful to. More often than not there is some detail in the careers of the most renowned of these men, (women got more of a look in in Medieval music and in the early Baroque, as we are now, thankfully, discovering), which marks them out as tricky in some way. Often over what they got paid. You would think the aristos and the Church would have been happy to pay up for art of this quality. Clearly not.

There are now a wealth of recordings of the (largely) French, Flemish, English, Italian and Spanish masters and the repertoire is still expanding. However, given the relatively limited number of performances and performers it is still likely that the casual listener/attendee, like yours truly, will encounter something new at every concert. The scholars and musicologists that lead the way still have plenty to play with I gather, so the sense of exploration and novelty that pervades Renaissance music performance, even though we are now well into the sixth decade of “rediscovery” since the first ensembles set out, isn’t about to end. I assume devoting your life to this sort of caper isn’t a way to make a lot of money but I hope that the economic ecosystem is robust enough to underpin such vocation.

You could also seek to understand when, why and how these pieces were performed. I guess having some sort of faith would be a good starting point for grasping the meaning of the religious works, but I also think it is perfectly possible for the irreligious to take something from the words and purposes of the texts. Even if all the rules of Christian liturgy and its founding myths remain a bit fuzzy you will certainly learn a lot about the political, religious and social contexts in which this works were created.

You might arm yourself too with as much knowledge as you can about the musical forms and structures which define this music. Sacred and secular, masses and motets, madrigals, modal and tonal, the way in which the vocal parts are put together, parody, imitation, suspensions, homophony, antiphony, plainsong, cantus firmus, dissonance, dyadic counterpoint. I can’t say I am there yet but some of the terminology is staring to fall into place. And remember folks the Tourist is, by virtue of a grotesquely painful singing voice, unable to perform, a source of eternal shame, and, by dint of what his music teacher at school was wont to call “tone deafness”, in a time before such educational derogation was outlawed, an utter inability to “read” notes on a page, only a consumer, and not a producer, of music. At the time I gloried in Mr Vaughan-Williams’, (I kid you not, but I am pretty sure he was no relation), disapproval. Now I really wish I had listened to him. Mind you I still take pride in being booted out of RE on a couple of occasions, for, and I swear this is no malleably manufactured memory, arguing with the teacher whose name I forget about the existence of God. Calling me a “long-haired jessy”, however apt, only served to fuel my nascent atheism I am afraid.

Anyway, you could learn all you can about this glorious music. Or you could, as frankly I normally do, let it wash over, and through, you. You know the thing where you forget about everything but the now, mind empties, body relaxes, free of the grinding anxiety of what has happened or what might be about to happen? To get it you can, I suppose, teach yourself, or get some-one to teach you, some sort of mindfulness mumbo-jumbo. Or you could just listen to Palestrina or Victoria. I promise it will work. After all it was written for exactly that purpose. To lose yourself in devotion. So piggy-back off that and get yourself along to one of these concerts. Close your eyes and let the voices take over.

Here endeth the lesson.