Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.

Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre review ****

Rutherford and Son

National Theatre Lyttleton, 16th May 2019

It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.

It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).

Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.

Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).

Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.

And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.

Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.

Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.

Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.

Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).

So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.