The Hunt at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Hunt

Almeida Theatre, 1st August 2019

I am not sure where I stand on the films of director, controversialist and misogynist Lars van Trier. I guess if you venture into dark territory you are going to make the audience that follows you uneasy. Which is how I feel about the likes of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Brilliant film-making if not always brilliant films. 

Fellow Dogme 95 founder Thomas Vinterberg is a much more palatable director however. More interested in social rather than individual psychology, more polis than eros, and less prone to stylistic innovation. Festen (The Celebration) is a work of unsettling, tonally ambiguous, tragi-comic genius, Submarino somehow extracts redemption from the unremitting pain of the brothers’ lives at its centre, Far From the Madding Crowd is better than the original, (Schlesinger’s and, I regret to say SO, Hardy’s), I’ve just seen the intriguing The Commune and I have Kursk on the watch list. But his best film for me is The Hunt, though it is helped by an outstanding central performance by the coolest actor on earth Mads Mikkelsen. 

All of his “original” films seem to be to be intrinsically dramatic, focussed on character, plot and idea, rather than spectacle, and not expansive in terms of time or place. Which makes them eminently suitable for theatrical treatment. It is a matter of some regret that the original Almeida production of Festen in 2004, which cemented the reputations of both Rufus Norris, now NT head, and playwright David Eldridge, who adapted the script of Vinterberg and his regular co-writer Tobias Lindholm, coincided with a theatrical “dry” period for the Tourist. Hopefully one day it will return.

This time it is Almeida AD Rupert Goold directing, following on from his string of hits , Shipwreck, Albion, Ink, Medea, King Charles III and American Psycho. We should never forget that it all starts with the writer, and that in this regard the Almeida has been lucky. More over the theatre is, I assume, now flush with enough cash and kudos to pull in any actor and creative team that is desires. Even so, and maybe forgiving a few recent misfires, the last few years have been a purple patch for the house even by comparison to its very high historical standards. Simple rule. Just buy a ticket for everything they put on. Even now that Robert Icke is on his way since Rebecca Frecknall looks to be a very capable replacement as Associate Director. (Next up her version of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Any playwright good enough to inspire a Bunnymen song gets my vote).

A story of a man or woman wrongly accused and shunned by a small community is obvious theatrical catnip. Reference the film where teacher Lucas returns to his Danish hometown and a job in a primary school after redundancy and the break-up of his marriage in the city. After a misunderstanding in the school with Clara, the daughter of Lucas’s best friend Theo, that we, but not the community, see, Lucas is accused of paedophilia. The set-up, the investigation that follows and the violent fall-out is all painfully realistic. The story though ends with neither forgiveness or banishment as you might expect. There is plenty of symbolism along the way as Lucas’s relationships with colleagues, friends, son Marcus, church members and hunting pals is dissected. A thriller with a moral message, rich in ambiguity, taking a potshot at Danish society’s complacent view of its own tolerance. Like I say. Theatrical catnip.

But it still needed adapting. Enter David Farr. I don’t know any of Mr Farr’s original writing or adaptations in the theatre but I, and probably you, will know his work for television, particularly his adaptations of John Le Carrie’s The Night Manager and, less successfully maybe, Misha Glenny’s McMafia. For The Hunt he has stuck pretty closely I think to the plot and chronology of the film, though he has made Lucas more solitary by removing girlfriend Nadja and friend Bruun, altered his relationship with Marcus and cleverly updated the schoolroom set-up. The deer hunts, and the ritualistic machismo that pervades them, have also been highlighted and provide some intense theatre assisted by the costumes of Evie Gurney, lighting of Neil Austin, sound of Adam Cork and movement of Botis Seva. Lucas is, graphically, turned into the prey.

I have said before that Rupert Gould strikes me as a generous director who brings out the best in the creatives around him and The Hunt is no exception. This is a gripping story but could have been delivered in a predictable enter/dialogue/exit, scene after scene fashion, as literal as its source. Instead, as in the string of his other plays mentioned above, the play is replete with movement, symbolism and visual diversion. The tone is set by, er, Es Devlin’s set. Yes it is another of her trademark glass boxes, set on a blond wood circular stage, but, whether as school, house, church, hunt meeting hall or, brace yourself, deer enclosure, switching from transparent to opaque, from place of safety to place or threat, it still works to brilliant effect.

Tobias Menzies is set to play Phil the Greek in Series 3 and 4 of The Crown but he has already decorated TV and film with distinction, though looking at his bio I haven’t seen nearly enough of him. On stage he was excellent as Mikhail/Michael in Robert Icke’s underrated Uncle Vanya at, yep you guessed it, the Almeida, but other than that, again, I haven’t seen him perform. Here though he was perfectly cast. Lucas is innocent, of the crime of which he is accused for sure, but also in a broader sense. This story is not an attempt to create false parity or deny the victim. It is about the hypocrisy and anger that can infect a small community when threatened. Lucas is neither good nor bad, simply the catalyst for the reaction, though we can sympathise with his plight. This doesn’t mean that the play dodges the uncomfortable truths it confronts, just that it doesn’t go in, as is the Dogme 95 way, for an overt moral stance.

For this to work requires Tobias Menzies to present Lucas as self contained, curiously restrained, almost withdrawn, in the face of what happens. This he does. To devastating effect. Justin Salinger as the feckless Theo and Poppy Miller as his unhappy wife Mikala, the three of them have baggage, are equally convincing, torn between believing their daughter or their friend. Around this trinity, Michele Austin as head teacher Hilde, Stuart Campbell as the gawky, raging Marcus, Danny Kirrane as the hyper-aggressive Gunnar and Howard Ward as the investigator Per also stood out. And Abbiegail Mills as young Clara should definitely stick with this acting lark (though not to the exclusion of her other studies of course).

Adaptations of films for the stage don’t always work. Witness many of Ivo van Hove’s creations. Though Network was a recent triumphant exception. This was in large part though thanks to the unsung adaptation of Lee Hall. In the same way we must thank David Farr for his smart contribution here. As good as the film? Maybe not quite. But still something remarkable to set alongside it.

Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s Theatre review *****

Rosmersholm

Duke of York’s Theatre, 6th May 2019

Right finally a review that might conceivably be of some value to my solitary, loyal reader. Not that you should need me to tell you to go and see this. The proper critics and committed theatre bloggers will already have told you that. But I can heartily concur. Though I freely admit this is, in part, because I am awestruck by Hayley Attwell, who turns in an even better performance than she did in Measure for Measure at the Donmar, Labyrinth at Hampstead or The Pride at Trafalgar Studios.

Rosmersholm is apparently considered by many Ibsen aficionados to be his best play though it is rarely performed when compared to say, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck or The Master Builder. Now that normally just means it has some fatal flaw which the clever luvvies are prepared to forgive but which leaves us normal folk a bit nonplussed. Well, on the basis of this production, it is hard to see what has held it back from being as “popular” as Ibsen’s other works. The ethical, religious and political message is more pointed, the heroine, Rebecca West, more “contemporary”, the hero, Rosmer, more conflicted, the plot more transparent and the message more “relevant”, (though you should always be wary of people who vest past dramatists with “uncanny foresight” – it is human behaviour that doesn’t change). If you like your Ibsen social critique raw and bloody, and characterisation that doesn’t fanny around with dainty nuance, then this will be right up your street.

I have seen some reviews that imply that director Ian Rickson takes his time here. Nonsense. As in his other, superb, productions recently, Translations, The Birthday Party and The Goat, and his work with Jez Butterworth, he doesn’t feel the need to display any directorial excess, simply concentrating on forensically letting his actors breathe life into the text. Now of course I cannot be sure if the adaptor here, Duncan MacMillan, has taken liberties with Ibsen’s intent, never having seen the play before, (and having fallen behind, actually having never left the starting gate, with my Danish). If he has then good on him. It works. There is a bit of maladroit symbolism on show, a vision of a white horse which first appeared after Rosmer’s wife, Beata, committed suicide a year earlier by throwing herself into the waterwheel, but this no less grating than what’s served up in Lady From The Sea, Little Eyolf or, in the closest parallel, Ghosts. Oh, and there is of course, this being Ibsen, apparently some unintentional incest.

It is true that there is no escaping the melodrama of the conclusion, as the burden of guilt for the central couple becomes to much to bear, but frankly I want to be emotionally manipulated by great drama. There is a reason why the Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Miller still punch in the gut and it isn’t located in cosy domesticity. Of course it is hard to believe that in the space of 10 minutes Rebecca and Rosmer make their pact but it is not as if the two of them have been hiding their emotional dissonance up until then. Oh, and there is, of course apparently some unintentional incest. So even if deep-rooted shame is something few of us in 2019 might recognise, (look to our political class for confirmation), it doesn’t require too much of a leap of imagination to believe it of Norway in 1886.

I can also see why some might not take to Tom Burke’s “actorly” portrayal of John Rosmer. Mr Burke has a particular intonation and delivery, (last see by us in Schiller’s Don Carlos), which doesn’t always ring true but it does make his character’s intellectual life explicit. You make not entirely accept what Rosmer is feeling here, especially when it comes to his guilt about Beata, but you certainly now what he is thinking. Set against Ms Attwell’s restless, impulsive Rebecca, whose “freedom” almost overwhelms her, and Giles Terera’s inflexible, but oh so reasonable, brother-in-law Andreas Kroll, his anguished, grieving Rosmer soon makes sense.

The tension between the Rosmer’s heritage as a rich aristo at the heart of local society who has lost his clerical mojo and the progressive leanings fuelled by Rebecca, and by Jake Fairbrother’s cynical reformist journo Peter Mortensgaard, all set around local elections, is pummelled to a pulp by Ibsen, MacMillan and cast, but that is what gives the arguments universality. The way in which values inform political positions, the way in which the press turns ugly and fans the flames, the struggle between engagement or withdrawal, (here taken to its ultimate, Romantic, conclusion). Lay on top the clarion feminist call that Rebecca represents, the doomed passion that follows Rebecca and Rosmer’s meeting of the minds and the dissolution of Peter’s Wright’s knackered Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s ex-teacher, the hypocritical foil to the buttoned up Kroll, and you have the full Ibsen package of contradiction.

Rae Smith has conjured up another elegant set. Much like Mike Britton’s construction for the Royal and Derngate’s Ghosts which the Tourist relished a few days earlier, authenticity was key, but here the faded grandeur of a long unused reception room in Rosmer’s ancestral pile was imagined. Lined with ancestral portraits which Rebecca instructs the staff to reveal from under dust covers at the opening, the new broom, (apparently the original text calls for Rebecca to sit in a chair knitting before the first line). Later on, just to make sure we haven’t missed them, Rosmer chucks flowers at his forebears. Neil Austin’s lighting design takes full advantage of the possibilities of the setting, as does Gregory Clarke’s sound. The servants are omni-present reminding Rosmer of his position and creating swish scene changes but only the pithy housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers) gets to chip in with dialogue. And big respect to whoever signed off the health and safety papers for the aqueous resolution.

As with Ghosts as I was leaving I overheard some punters saying that they liked the actors but that it was a bit “word-y”. I am going to say this fully aware of just what a patronising c*nt it makes me sound like but …. it is not just about whether you recognise the cast from the telly and …. it is a play …. it is supposed to be “word-y”.

Ghosts at the Royal and Derngate review

Ghosts

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 2nd May 2019

A little bit of back to back Ibsen action. First this Ghosts and then, a few days later, Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. And the Tourist’s first visit to the Royal and Derngate which, he has Benn rather slow to observe, has been producing some very tempting offers as of late. I gather most of the drama here, (plays not fist-fights), takes place in the Royal with the larger Derngate offering a broader range of entertainment (Wet, Wet, Wet on the evening of the afternoon the Tourist attended, for those few of you who might be tempted by such). Both are wrapped inside a fine, open foyer area and I gather there are other spaces as well, the Underground Studio and a Filmhouse. All round very impressive.

As was this production of Ghosts, masterminded by director Lucy Bailey in a new version from Mike Poulton. Mr Poulton has a long history of adapting the European classics, Chekhov, Schiller, and a definitive version of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. His last outing was the excellent RSC two part Imperium, the story of Cicero, which I caught on its London transfer. I last saw Ghosts in 2013/14, two versions pretty much back to back. In Richard Eyre’s West End take Lesley Manville pretty much wiped the floor with any other Helen Alving’s past and future. In the other, Stephen Unwin’s ETT version at the Rose Kingston (his final play there as AD), well let us just charitably say it didn’t quite match it. But Ghosts is such a fine play in my book that it is hard to go too far wrong.

Having said that it is possible to get bogged down in old Henrik’s miserabilism. Religion, syphilis, potential incest and assisted suicide are never likely to make their way into the repertoire of, say, Mischief Theatre, (though Ghosts: The Musical might prove tempting), but there is more in terms of plot and character beyond a metaphor for late C19 moral hypocrisy. Helen Alving, holed up in her gloomy mansion, is a woman of rare depth, her doomed son Osvald does have moments of joy, at least potentially, Pastor Manders is not entirely devoid of sympathy, Jakob Engstrand wants to atone and Regina will, I think, one day come to terms with her parentage.

Indeed if it wasn’t for the prize c*nt, the dead Captain Alving, things might have been very different. He was the faithless husband who ruins his wife’s, his son’s and Regina’s lives. The sins of the father and all that. (The Danish/Norwegian title is Gengangere, “the thing that walks again”, which is more like a revenant than a ghost, someone and something that comes back to haunt others). By confronting the past Helen knows she is going to make things worse, of course, but this is also, as with all of Ibsen’s important women, a catharsis to break free from that past and to engage with the truth however ugly. To reject the social mores and religious convention that trapped her in the painful marriage, even if it is too late for her son and her dead husband’s illegitimate daughter.

Lucy Bailey, Mike Poulton and designer Mike Britton have worked together before and it shows. Adaptation flows into direction which is perfectly framed by the set. Mr Britton was apparently inspired by Edvard Munch’s art. Munch produced numerous illustrations of Ibsen’s plays and designed a production of the play in 1906 shortly after HI’s death. The darkest of dark blue-greens, think Farrow and Ball Green Smoke but darker, creates a fitting “psychological” backdrop. Gauze screens divide reception rooms and conjure up spectres. Props, costumes and architecture details are spot on period, straight out of a Vilhelm Hammershoi interior (as above). This is what Ibsen should look like. After the effective orphanage fire the set does angle back to create a “pit” which the actors have to clumsily navigate but otherwise this was perfection.

Made more so by Oliver’s Fenwick’s moody lighting and by Richard Hammarton’s sound design and composition. No barely audible ambient background noise here. A proper soundscape. With lots and lots of rain and a proper fire. And some top drawer cello, violin and piano chord dissonance.

It is possible to judge the success of a production of Ghosts as pure drama by the reaction of the uninitiated members of the audience to the various disclosures. Ibsen, being a genius, doesn’t just bounce them out in a line or two of clumsy exposition, they emerge, organically, from the plot. Mr Poulton’s adaptation perfectly registers these twists, not quite turning it into a thriller, that would be asking too much, but definitely more than enough to persuade the Ibsen-curious. Well maybe not all, as I overhead some student-y types complaining it was too “text-y” afterwards. Trust me kids this is as racy as Ibsen gets.

Penny Downie, particularly in the scenes where she rounds on Manders, was a fine, dignified, Helen Alving. Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald was a little too camp for my taste. I know he is an artistic type but too much surface petulance risks losing the despair of what might have been. Declan Conlon’s Jakob by contrast was well rounded and Eleanor McLoughlin wisely held back to make her escape at the end more pointed. James Wilby did verge on the shouty at times but his Pastor was sufficiently human, confused, and, finally, ashamed, to make the initial friendship with Helen believable (sometimes a problem if he is overly puritanical).

Apparently Ibsen only took a few weeks to write Ghosts in 1881, whilst summering in Sorrento, though it didn’t get staged until the following year by a Danish company in Chicago. The subject matter was in part a two-fingered riposte to all the churchmen and stiff-necks back home in Norway who got wound up by the his previous play, the far milder A Doll’s House. There his heroine Nora walks out on her sh*t-head husband. Here we see what can happen when a wife is convinced to stay. If HI thought he had wound up his conservative enemies with A Doll’s House, they went batsh*t when Ghosts arrived back home. Even when the King of Sweden loaded up HI with medals and honours galore years later, as he was recognised as Scandi’s greatest cultural export (at least until ABBA, just joking), his maj told him off for writing Ghosts.

HI famously said “we go through life with a corpse on our back”. This masterly version shows just why Ghosts is probably, IMHO, the Ibsen play which best represents this maxim. If our Henrik never stopped picking away at the scabs of his own life and the society around him then Ghosts is when the blood started to properly flow.

I will be back at the R&D. I have seen three of the Made in Northampton shows that are currently touring, Touching the Void, The Remains of the Day and the Headlong Richard III. The first two are outstanding and I see that Touching the Void is coming to London later this year. Mandatory viewing. I missed Our Lady of Kibeho which, judging by the reviews, was a massive oversight. So I am not going to make the same mistake with The Pope, Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge in the rest of this season.

I can see why the R&D has garnered awards though, and, I say this with the greatest respec,t it is hard to reconcile the fact that its AD, James Dacre, has the ex-editor of the Daily Mail for his dad. It would seem that, in this case, the sins of the father have not been visited on the son.

The Lady From The Sea at the Print Room Coronet review ****

The Lady From The Sea

Print Room Coronet, 20th February 2019

Hummed and hawed about this one. Never been entirely sure about TLFTS when compared to other Ibsen’s, was not bowled over by it’s last London outing at the Donmar, couldn’t get the cheap Wednesday seat option (that is a steal) and was trepidatious about the billed mix of Norwegian and English creatives. On the other hand the last time the Norwegians came over, in the form of the National Theatre of Norway, to this very stage with their Little Eyolf (which I do care for) it was, by all accounts, a success, and the Print Room under AD Anda Winters can usually be relied upon to deliver a thought-provoking, if sometimes obtuse, evening’s entertainment.

And so it turned out. The combination of modern idiom English and Norwegian text, and British and Norwegian acting “styles” was both captivating and illuminating, as it drew out the differences between . Now as I am sure you all know Ibsen, after some chap name of Shakespeare, is the most performed dramatist worldwide (though, as with all such claims, the Tourist is dubious as to how this was proved. Remember people, always question). However, Norway had no theatre company dedicated to Henrik’s works, a la the RSC, though there is a successful biennial Ibsen festival sponsored by the National Theatre in Oslo . Which is why, in 2016, AD Kare Conradi, set up the NIC, to sponsor both new productions and to work with other theatre-makers internationally on the work of the master. The company is bi-lingual by design and targets those who might otherwise not get to see HI. This is their first in-house production. Good on ’em.

Wangel (Adrian Rawlins) is the English doctor who has ended up in the provincial Norwegian seaside with daughters Bolette (Marina Bye) and Hilde (Molly Windsor). His new wife Elida is played by Norwegian acting royalty, Pia Tjelta, who was in the Little Eyolf last year, and Kare Conradi himself plays the returning schoolteacher and family friend Arnholm. The Stranger, the object of Elida’s obsession is, obvs, Norwegian in the form of veteran Oystein Roger. Our sickly, would-be artist Lyngstrand is however English, played by Edward Ashley.

Elida likes the sea. Elida is miserable. Elida and Wangel lost their son as a baby. Elida and Wangel’s marriage is under pressure. Arnholm arrives to help. Arnholm falls for Bolette who longs to escape. Lyngstrand is a bit of a ninny but mopes sound after feisty Hilde who feels rejected by step-mum. The seaman Stranger who Elida loved and lost returns to take her back. Only when Wangel accepts she is free to decide her own destiny does she elect to stay and put the marriage back together. Without the symbolism its a belting story about the “choices” that we make. With the symbolism, as long as it is not overwrought (and this is where I sometimes get fidgety), it could be, I would imagine, intoxicating.

That isn’t quite the case here but it is still engrossing stuff. Mari Vatne Kjeldstadli’s (she also acts as dramaturg) new version, based on the translation of May-Brit Akerholt, is mercifully purposeful stuff, a text located in the right here, right now, which still just about manages to dreamier elements and finds the comedy. Pia Tjelta takes a nice line through Elida’s frustration with the present borne out of her idealised past. The final scene with Adrian Rawlin’s Wangel, when the penny finally drops for him, was as convincing, (and a little bit moving), as good as it gets. Kare Conradi’s captured the threat that underpins the bargain that Arnholm offers Bolette. Molly Windsor has been lauded for her performance in TV drama, Three Girls. It was easy to see why in this her stage debut. Her petulant Hilde was particularly effective as she dragged the damp Lyngstrand around the houses, physically and metaphorically, and in her interaction with Elida, notably in the “reconciliation” at the end.

No messing with Erlend Bierland’s set. Beach backed by beach-house backed by mountain view. And, a la mode, a fish tank. This is some way up the Norwegian coast. Lovely when the sun comes out. Not so perky during the long dark seasons. I need to imagine the whiff of sea, sand, engine oil and disappointment which I got here, though maybe a more nuanced lighting design (Simon Bennison) might have added more texture. Nils Petter Molvaer’s composition and sound lent a mildly brooding air when required.

So a production that uses a bi-lingual text and cast to emphasis difference and which, subtly, but insistently, marks out Ibsen’s photo-feminist message of self-determination. It sometimes came across as a little uneven but then again Ibsen wouldn’t be Ibsen without the messy stuff of life.

Rosenbaum’s Rescue at the Park Theatre review ***

Rosenbaum’s Rescue

Park Theatre 200, 29th January 2018

Not quite sure why this didn’t entirely work for me. Alexander Bodin Sophir takes an intriguing story, the escape of 7500 Jews by boat from Copenhagen to Sweden in 1943 just before the Nazis were about to round them up, and puts it into the mouths of a Swedish historian, his German daughter, his Danish-Jewish friend and the latter’s wife as they are holed up at the couple’s house following a power cut. Mr ABS, in this his first play, has the passion to tell the story, his own grandparents escaped this way, and he has put the hours in research-wise, unsurprising given his day-job as documentary maker. He also contrives a punchy, if slightly overwrought, twist to proceedings at the end.

Actually I think I do know why. In the effort to cover all the contended reasons as to how and why these events happened, and to elide this with dramatic personal disclosures, ABS perhaps asks his text and dialogue to do just a bit too much heavy lifting and makes his characters just a bit too predictable.

It is Hanukkah, 2001 in the Scandi chic interior (courtesy of designer William Fricker) of the house of Abraham (David Bamber) and Sara (Julia Swift). They are preparing for a visit from Lars (Neil McCaul) and Eva (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). Lars is researching the events surrounding the evacuation. Abraham, as an observant Jew, is convinced that it was the result of the heroic resistance of the Danish people, and divine intercession, whilst Lars, an atheist, is convinced there was collusion between the Danish government, which had avoided the excesses of occupation elsewhere in Europe through flexible accommodation, and certain sympathetic Nazi higher-ups. Personal recollection, both men where 8 in 1943 plays a part as their friendship arose from a family connection formed at the time. Memories prove somewhat flawed and events open to interpretation especially when a few McGuffinish momentos are chucked in.

Cue snowstorm to ensure the debate rages and then lay on top some past history between the calm Sara and Lars and the fact that Eva, a novelist, sees her identity stemming largely from her German mother, now divorced from Lars. It isn’t tricky to guess the outcomes but all this intrigue does detract from the historical interrogation, and vice versa. ABS’s dialogue smartly, and comically, undercuts some of the more hyperbolic exchanges, notably from Sara and Eva (I am very keen on Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s no nonsense acting talent – here she did a lot with very little). The versatile David Bamber is always a joy to watch whatever he is doing (last seen by me as Noel in Julia Davies’s gloriously smutty Camping – and indelible memory) and the is no exception. Neil McCaul, as the “truth is everything” academic is maybe asked to turn up the apoplectic dial once too often but this does serve an obvious purpose.

The competing narratives of what actually happened are well articulated in Kate Fahy’s production, but she could maybe have cranked the pace up. The parallels with present day Denmark, and by implication the rest of Europe, get a little lost and the science vs religion arguments are a bit heavy handed. I came out actually wishing ABS hand found a way to simply focus on the arguments about what actually happened, and therefore the “truth of history”, in a much shorter double-hander, and reversed the passive-aggressive relationship of Abraham and Lars. Alternatively the personal drama could have proved the catalyst from which the historical argument obliquely emerged.

Still learned a lot. That’s enough.

The LSO and Barbara Hannigan at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 10th January 2019

  • Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
  • Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
  • Nielsen – Symphony No 4 “Inextinguishable”, Op 29

I am pretty sure that Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the CBSO from 1991 was one of the first classical music CDs that I bought, (there was a bit of vinyl prior to this and I have never been what you might call an early adopter). So there was a time when I liked, or thought I should like, the Sibelius symphonies and Sir Simon’s way with them. No longer I am afraid. I can get the ebb and flow, the organic construction, the elemental, the river and sea analogies, but I just start to zone out after a while and it all turns into a bit of a drone. Maybe Sir Simon’s now generally heavier readings, deliberate pacing and eye for detail overwhelmed the piece but it did nothing for me.

What a confession to have to make. I understand that the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1924, was itself something of a mould breaker what with its one unbroken movement, its constantly shifting tempi and its dogged reliance on C major and minor. And the fact that he wrote it when p*ssed up to his eyeballs. He went on to compose the tone poem Tapiola and an arrangement of the Tempest suite and a few chamber pieces, and destroyed the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony, but by 1929 he was done, publishing nothing for the next three decades, although I gather he tried, (as well as knocking up some tunes for his Mason mates). Retirement, after a lifetime of excess, was clearly good for him since he got to the ripe old age of 91. I can see why the Finns are so proud of him but I am with those who hear the radical conservative in his music rather than the conservative radical.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle, let me tell you, from 2012-13, was composed with Barbara Hannigan’s voice in mind. He wasn’t the first contemporary composer to do this and he won’t be the last. For her soprano is a most extraordinary instrument. The piece is divided into three parts with seven sections in all and the text, created by Paul Griffiths from his novella of the same title, is drawn entirely from the 483 words that Ophelia delivers in Hamlet, though with very changed meanings and tones. This Ophelia speaks of memory, of music, or love and she doesn’t end up face down in a pond, hair artfully arranged amongst petals. The music of Mr Abrahamsen is (micro)-tonal and largely consonant, but he does slice it up in unusual ways harmonically, whilst still offering a clear, if shifting, pulse behind the glittering, glassy melody textures, driven by percussion and high strings. As most informed commentators have said, it is wintry music, no question. Now I can’t pretend the music leapt out at me on first hearing but it did create a solicitous backdrop for that voice and there is no doubt I will be listening again.

Whether she is singing Britten, Berg, George Benjamin, Gerard Barry, Ligeti, or any number of other modern and contemporary composers it has not yet been my pleasure to hear, she is utterly beguiling and totally convincing. Her soprano is light and clear, but immensely powerful, and she can act. I had another look at Lessons in Love and Violence, this time courtesy of the BBC broadcast, and this time therefore up close rather than the dolls-house view from the ROH amphitheatre of the live view. Firstly a reminder that it is a very, very good opera and secondly there are times when, as Queen Isabel, Ms Hannigan, IMHO, is up there with the best of stage actors, whilst still managing to sing exquisitely, with meaning, to the back of the auditorium.

In this piece HA has served up all manner of opportunity for BH to show off that emotional connection, with suspensions, tremolos, swoops and soars, mournful ululations, floating high notes, even Monteverdian rebounds or, to use the technical term, “stile concitato”. It was a big success when to first appeared, the recording with Andriss Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO went down a storm, and the audience lapped it up at the Proms a couple of years ago. Easy to see why HA, BH, Sir Simon and the LSO fully deserved the applause.

The Nielsen was an altogether jollier affair than the Sibelius (Danes being, in the Tourist’s experience, somewhat more upbeat company than Finns). And for me, Rattle’s deliberate way, and the LSO’s accurate playing, served this much better than the Sibelius. Nielsen, as we all know, liked to chuck it about a bit and here in the Fourth with his defiant sub-title and programmatic exhortation – “in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….” – he starts as he means to go on.

I can see why some might not take to the Nielsen’s progressive tonalities, awkward, clashing sonorities, his shifting themes, big, bold rhythms and mix of C19 and C20 musical languages. For me he is, in contrast to Sibelius, the conservative radical. Tonalities don’t always comfortably agree with each other, but always resolve in some way. I like the way all the ideas jostle for space, and there are many interesting and unusual textures and colours, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of composers from earlier and later decades. One foot in the past and one in the future. If you started with Brahms and Grieg, mashed it up with a hefty squirt of Mahler, a dash of Shostakovich, put it in an oven marked Bartok and Schoenberg, whilst still remaining in a kitchen built by polyphony and Bach, you might have the recipe.

He went through a wobbly phase through the turn of the century, listen to the Second Symphony, and he certainly played up to the stereotype of the troubled Nordic creative. Whilst recognised in his lifetime, it took some a much longer before his distinctive voice was recognised internationally, if not in Denmark, where his songs remain part of the country’s fabric.

The symphony has four defined movements, but these are unbroken, and it takes a few listens to realise that themes that emerge in each of the movements do, in fact, share material. The opening Allegro opens with a stirring crossing of woodwind and strings and from which emerges a hopeful woodwind whistle in E major, which returns in the final movement. After numerous dramatic rises and falls the climax of this movement also anticipates the final resolve. The Poco Allegretto which follows is an impish folk tune, subject to various treatments. The Poco Adagio starts with descending strings set against an intermittent timpani thud, turns a bit darkly pastoral, before building to another foretaste of the climax. The final Allegro starts with scurrying strings, before some Hollywood gush, some chaotic martial cross rhythms, a calmer phase before the message of hope, if we can just endure, is hammered home.

The Fourth was written in 1916. Nielsen had gone into WWI a proud nationalist like Sibelius and so many artists and intellectual across Europe. It didn’t take him long, amidst the carnage of industrialised slaughter, to change his mind. This was his response. “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable”. A fair motto to also attach to the composition from his countryman a century later.