The Fishermen at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Fishermen

Arcola Theatre, 20th September 2018

Good to see the Arcola downstairs space filled to bursting for Gbolahan Obiesesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 novel, a rapid transfer after a successful run in Edinburgh and then Manchester. Pretty clear that everyone in the audience was wowed by what they saw. The story has been stripped back to just two actors, here Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga, who, in a triumph of shape-shifting, take on all the characters. This is set against the most pared back of designs, a sort of raised deck taijitu, separated by metal poles. It really is one of the most plainly effective sets I have seen in a long time, symbolising the symbiosis of the two brothers whose journey the play describes. Bravo Amelia Jane Hankin who I see is also designing the set for the kids’ version of Comedy of Errors in Stratford. The lighting of Amy Mae and sound of Adam McCready are equally effective.

The two brothers, Ben and Obembe Agwu, reunite to go fishing in the Omi-Ala river where they were brought up. They proceed to act out, in flashbacks, the story of a prophecy, from village misfit Abulu, that foretold the dramatic events that broke up their family. Abulu, Mum, Dad, the two fated elder brothers, Ikenna and Boja, villagers, authority figures, soldiers, all come vividly to life, even as the two men disagree about what exactly happened. There are flashes of humour, suspense and, at times, real fear. We get a sense of what matters to them, now and in the past, and of how their lives in southern Nigeria, and the history of the country, the clash between tradition and modernity, has played out in the last couple of decades. I gather Mr Obiesesan has pruned the novel somewhat, but still preserved the conceit of Igbo oral storytelling, and cleverly given voice to the memories of two, rather than just one, of the brothers. The idea of a prophecy bringing down a family and of a father whose hubris is reflected in the ambitions he has for his children, couldn’t be more Greek, but this is very far from classical tragedy though it is certainly mythic in ambition if not length (in places it is almost too quick).

Above all though what really makes this work is some extraordinary inventive theatre to bring the text to life. Director Jack McNamara delivers remarkable idea after idea and the two brilliant actors, especially in their physicality, charisma and palpable bond, are more than able to convert these ideas into thrilling drama. the re-imagined fight between the two eldest brothers was a stand-out. I see Mr McNamara is signed up to direct the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Love Lies Bleeding at the Print Room, which I look forward to, and, on the strength of this production (which is now touring), I would snap up tickets to anything his company, New Perspectives, based in Nottingham, serves up. And I would expect to see a lot, lot more of both of this actors.

I don’t read many books. I have no choice but to read this though.

The Outsider at the Print Room Coronet review ****

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The Outsider

Print Room Coronet, 19th September 2018

Tricky one this. I can’t pretend I was pinned back in my seat by the two and a half hours of Ben Okri’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurd existentialist classic written in 1942. Abbey Wright’s careful direction injects a little humour, (a dog is played by a mop and the trial scene is undercut with satire), but otherwise doesn’t take liberties with either Camus’ story or this intelligent text. The monochrome set, complete with multiple fans, and costume designs of Richard Hudson, bolster the sense of ennui. The Print Room dry ice machine gets yet another comprehensive work out. The plot, French Algerian bloke, bored at work as a clerk, can’t really get worked up about Mum’s death, finds girlfriend but can’t commit, gets involved with rum type neighbour, gets very hot, kills Algerian, is tried and condemned without really explaining himself, has its moments but isn’t going to pack them in at the Victoria Palace any time soon.

Yet this unhurried, unequivocal approach slowly and surely yields dividends assisted by an outstanding performance from Sam Frenchum. Now the Tourist got an inkling into of the talent of young Sam in the role of Hal in the Park Theatre’s excellent revival of Joe Orton’s Loot this time last year. Hal may not be the sharpest too in the box, so needs to be played dumb to get the laughs, but we need to see how his jealously of lover and criminal sidekick intensifies through the farce. That we got. Here though the young man, who is on stage throughout, rises up to a different challenge, gradually uncovering a man in Mersault, who reveals nothing. His delivery is deliberately monotone but far from mechanical. I expect him to go on to bigger things from here (actorally if not philosophically).

The pace gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on what drives Mersault and why he is like he is. In the same way as the book. Ostensibly simple, almost banal, Mersault’s story yields pointed insight into the human condition, and specifically, the notion of alienation, of Mersault being a “stranger” or “outsider” to his own life and in the society around him. His utter indifference. Of course you might think it is a load of pretentious Gallic guff which only those who think too much and/or have too much time on their hands could possibly think is of any value. You might be right but I respectfully suggest you give it a go. After all you surely must have experienced the feeling of being utterly bemused by what is going on around you or unable to summon up apparently required emotions. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, his utter scepticism, is pretty bleak but it is ultimately truthfully humanist, even if it doesn’t always feel very human and can jar with post-modern sensibilities. It still needs to be understood though.

The book is written in the first person. Ben Okri has preserved that structure with Mersault speaking direct to audience in key passages to detail his experiences, perceptions, feelings, motivations, or more precisely lack thereof, whilst mixing this up with action across 13 speaking characters (and a few brave community locals). His first date with Marie Cardona (an innocently upbeat Vera Chok) on the beach, the murder, when he is alone in the cell and large parts of the courtroom scenes are straight narrative: the interactions with Raymond (an intimidating Sam Alexander), the undertaker and his defence lawyer (Josh Barrow moving swiftly on from his fine performance in The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios), his boss and the prosecuting lawyer (David Carlyle) and the director and examining magistrate (Mark Penfold) are largely dialogue, though even here the sense that Mersault is at once removed from his own “reality” is palpable. Mind you he certainly “comes alive” when he violently rejects religion in the powerful scene with the chaplain (John Atterbury).

Mr Okri has preserved the minimalist quality of Camus’ text, or at least the translation I remember reading years ago, but still offers enough “colour” for Abbey Wright, lighting designer David Plater, sound designer Matt Regan and movement director Joyce Henderson to work with. Mind you he doesn’t quite scale the spartan heights of Robert Smith lyrics in The Cure’s early classic Killing An Arab.

If you do take the opportunity to see this production at the Print Room, there are a handful of tickets left, or if it pops up elsewhere, which it should, then don’t miss the accompanying short film by Mitra Tabrizian with text, in Arabic, once again from Ben Okri, which imagines events from the perspective of the Arab. Camus’ novel is discomforting in many ways, as was his principled ambivalence to Algerian independence, but giving a voice to the nameless Arab, here Mohamed Moulfath, (in the play Archie Backhouse), in a way similar to the 2014 novel The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, offers a valuable alternative perspective.

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

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Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.

 

Describe the Night at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Describe The Night

Hampstead Theatre, 23rd May 2018

In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Describe the Night hasn’t gone down too well with the London critics. The SO and I think they might have missed a trick. It is ambitious, ranging across several periods of Soviet and post Soviet Russian history, with a fairly cavalier approach to naturalism, and mixes fact and fiction, real and imagined events. Its workshop-py creative methodology shows through, but it was for us highly effective and enlightening. We’ve seen a fair few other plays that have fallen far shorter, despite their more limited intent. So hats off to Rajiv Joseph the writer for giving this a go. I see he won an OBIE, off Broadway award, for best new play with this. That’s probably a bit generous, (or New York is lamentably short of new work which I refuse to believe), but it’s proof that this isn’t the disappointment some have claimed it to be.

Polly Sullivan’s design sees a cliff wall of grey metal filing cabinets punctuated with a raised corridor and spiral staircase down to a dark open space with a couple of spindly birches. This, with some nifty work from Johanna Town’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound, serves as backdrop for an underground KGB/NKVD filing room, an interrogation room, a minicab office, a plush Moscow apartment, a sparsely furnished flat and a forest exterior. The action kicks off in Poland in 1920 during the Russo-Polish war, (a conflict itself near forgotten), where we meet Isaac Emmauilovich Babel played by Ben Caplin and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov played by David Birrell. Both actors are superb by the way.

Now Babel was a writer whose stories about his childhood and this war were initially feted by the Soviet authorities but who was eventually arrested, his work confiscated, and he was executed in 1940. Yezhov was a small man, a party functionary, who drank to excess, but rose to become a favourite of Stalin and head of the NKVD through the Great Purge. Eventually though he fell foul of Stalin, his wife Yevgenia Solomonovna Feigenburg (Rebecca O’Mara) was arrested, and he too was executed in 1940, despite trying to save his skin by ratting on his friends including Babel. The photos above show how he was famously “non-person-ned” out of history.

The two meet in a forest near Smolensk as Babel is trying to “describe the night” around him. The literal Yezhov has very little of the poet about him, Babel relishes metaphor,  and the two debate the nature of facts and truth. They strike up a firm, if unlikely, friendship. We move forward to 1930s Moscow where we see Babel, whose estranged wife is in Paris, begin his affair with Yevgenia, (which, in reality, had started earlier before she married Yezhov). In the next scene we have whizzed forward to 2010 and Smolensk, where the plane taking the Polish president, his wife and various political and military elite to the commemoration of the Katyn massacre of 1940, has just crashed. Journalist Mariya (Wendy Kweh) is looking to evade the police and enlists the help of Feliks (Joel MacCormack) to made good her escape so she can tell the story.

For those that don’t know the crash is still the subject of conspiracy theories, despite the Polish and Russian authorities concluding it was down to human error, and the Katyn massacre saw the murder of some 22000 Polish military and intelligentsia by the NKVD, although Soviet authorities only finally admitted this in 2010 having previously blamed the Nazis.

We also seen Wendy Kweh as cantankerous Mrs Petrovna and her “daughter” Urzula, played by newcomer Siena Kelly, living in Dresden in 1989. Urzula wants to escape to the West. They have come to the attention of Vova, extravagantly played by Steve John Shepherd, who you might know as one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We see our putative Putin rewriting his own history in a confrontation with Yezkov, who has “lived on” to control the files of the NKVD/KGB. The real Putin’s early history is somewhat uncertain. Urzula may be the grand-daughter of the illegitimate child of Babel and Yevgenia, who ended up in an asylum thanks to Yezkov, unable to distinguish Babel’s stories from her own memory. Vova also interrogates, unpleasantly, Mariya, mirroring Yezkov’s interrogation of Babel.

And so the stories weave together and what is true and what is fiction becomes ever more uncertain. Babel’s diary, started in 1920, becomes the physical link between the “scenes”. Some have seen parallels in th eplay with other contemporary regimes alongside Russia where the truth is routinely manipulated. Rajiv Joseph is after all an American playwright. There is certainly much to ponder on from Mr Joseph’s particular narratives. and from his mix of fact and fiction, with even some magic realism thrown in, (never be tempted to drink leech soup). History has always been uncertain, from the moment it is “made”. Leaders and states have always sought to confound “truth”. limited only by their shame and intelligence, or lack thereof. The multiplicity of viewpoint that curses our contemporary digital world might seem like it has “never been as bad as this” but it has, as this century of Russian “history”, shows us. People lie. History is rewritten. Truth is fiction and fiction truth where only art might be trusted. The scale of Russia’s current strategy of disinformation may be exaggerated by technology but it certainly isn’t novel.

We thought that Rajiv Joseph’s text and Lisa Spirling’s (AD of Theatre 503) unhurried direction turned into an invigorating display of these “realities”. The cast all seem to have adopted a slightly forced quality in their delivery, which is though entirely consistent with the structure of the play and the world it inhabits. The “workshopped” construction, this version is different from its NYC cousin, does sometimes mean the pace eases ever so slightly, and the play is, perforce, disjointed, but the rewards more than justify this. (I am much happier saying this about Describe the Night than Maly Theatre’s Life and Fate, a similar dramatic exploration of Russian history). There is dark humour throughout. I can imagine a more fleet-footed production, (Stoppard and Kushner, also writers who relish the interplay of ideas and theatre, similarly need momentum), but the play is already asking a fair bit from its audience, (there is definitely a case for reading the excellent HT programme in advance), so a less stagey approach might risk confusion.

For the moment though this is well worth the effort. There are a few performances left at the HT but I have a feeling this will come back in some form or other and will be a “grower” whose reputation will grow with time. Not everything is what it initially seems maybe.

PS. The foyer of the HT contains some of the material from David King’s splendid collection of Soviet graphic art and photographs which formed the backbone of the recent excellent Tate Modern exhibition. There are a few links below to reviews of other cultural events that plough a similar furrow. Treat yourself.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

The Death of Stalin film review ****

Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****

 

 

 

 

 

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Life and Fate

Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 20th May 2018

The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg was founded in 1944 and is one of just three European theatre companies to have been awarded the title Theatre of Europe from the EU. (No I didn’t grasp the geography of that either). The company has been led by Lev Dodin since 1983 and is renowned for its Russian adaptations of theatrical classics and for its examination of the paradoxes and realities of culture, society, life and politics in the Soviet Union. The relationship between culture and government in Russia continues to fascinate me and I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see Theatre with a capital T come to London.

Life and Fate was premiered in Paris in 2007 and is based on the epic novel by Vasily Grossman, pictured above, which documents the life of the Shtrum family through the 1930s and WWII in Soviet Russia. Vasily Grossman was born in 1905, a Jew in Ukraine, and initially trained and worked as a chemical engineer. He took up writing full time after his one of his short stories In the Town of Berdichev attracted attention. In the 1930s he just about managed to stay the right side of the authorities, in contrast to many of his peers, but in 1938 his wife was taken into custody following the arrest of her ex-husband. He became a renowned war correspondent and was one of the first to enter Ukraine following its liberation, only to find his mother, and indeed the whole Jewish population of his hometown Berdichev, had been murdered by the Nazis. Ukrainian complicity in the genocide was covered up.

This personal history provided the material for Life and Fate which VG sought to get published in the thaw that followed Stalin’s death. However the manuscript was seized by the KGB and pronounced unpublishable for at least 200 years. After VG’s death in 1964 a secret copy was smuggled out and eventually published in Switzerland in 1980 and, finally, following Glasnost, in Russia though still with some passages removed.

It is then a Book with a capital B of immense significance. It is also a whopper extending to near 800 pages, echoing War and Peace. In another of the now not uncommon marital coincidences chez Tourist the SO has it near the top of her to-read list having been recently drawn into the world of investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who also shines a light on Soviet and post Soviet life, albeit more recent decades. Unusually it was me that recommended her books. The cultural division of labour, with the SO doing the hard work of reading and writing, and me the easy jobs of seeing and hearing, art, theatre and music, is thus alive and kicking in the Tourist household.

Condensing down this work into three and a half hours of theatre must have been some undertaking, taking time (3 years in fact), effort, research and immersion. The play starts in 1943 after a prominent physicist, Viktor Shtrum, returns to Moscow and the Institute he works in. He lives in a flat with wife Lyuda, and schoolgirl daughter Nadya. Lyuda’s son from her first marriage, Tolya, has been killed in the war. Her first husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in the gulag along with Krymov, the ex-husband of Lyuda’s sister Zhenya who comes to stay with the Shtrums.

The Soviet labour camp also houses another political prisoner Monidze and criminals Barkhatov and Ugarov. Their plight is contrasted with the prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, Mostovskoy, Ikonnikov, Ershov and Osipov, overseen by SS officer Liss. There are scenes set in the Battle of Stalingrad with tank Colonel Norikov who is Zheya’s lover, his number two Getmanov and a runner Vershikov, and in the Moscow Institute with colleagues of varying political committment, Sevastnov, Sokolov, Shishakov and Kovchenko.

Fortunately there is no doubling up and the programme notes are excellent in providing context. For the scenes do deliberately mesh into each other, with some very well choreographed rearrangement of the set, and actors from one location often remain on stage when others take the lead. The chronology is also fluid and the presence of Victor’s dead mother Anna is made flesh in the most moving laments in between key scenes.

All this is intended to point up the equivalence between the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and in this the play overwhelmingly succeeds. Viktor is Jewish and this leads to his ostracism and expulsion from the Institute as the policies of nationalism and anti-semitism infect Stalin’s regime in ways that mirror the more overt ideology of its enemy. If Viktor repents and confesses he might be able to save himself and his family, and continue with his work, but only if he abandons the truth and his identity.

And then along comes the fickle finger of fate as Stalin himself rings up and “wishes him success in his work”. It seems Viktor is the key to unlocking a nuclear bomb for the Soviets. He is safe. Life goes on. Except that the horror around him doesn’t stop. And Viktor is eventually faced with signing a letter that he knows will condemn dissidents to death.

It is an immense journey which in many ways is cleverly captured on this smallish proscenium stage. BUT it is very Actorly and very Speechy. Declamation is the go to style of delivery and this, compounded by the subject, makes for a gruelling evening. I was fortunately promoted to a much better seat, sightlines being untenable in my normal cheapskate TRH perch This exaggerated the staginess and meant a fair bit of my attention was lavished on the sur-titles for Francine Yorke’s translation. Now, I hear you cry, what did you expect going to see an epic set in the darkest period of the C20 delivered in Russian. Elf the Musical? Well no, I get that this did, to all intents and purposes, do exactly what it said on the can but I do think the production, not the material of course, tended to the overly grandiose.

I would find it invidious to pick out any of the cast or creative team for particular praise though you cannot deny the sheer presence of Sergey Kuryshev as Viktor and Tatiana Shestakova as Anna. I was also struck by Daria Rumyanantseva as Nadia, Alexander Koshkarev as Shishakov and Oleg Dmitriev as Liss but like I say this is large-scale, and I mean large, ensemble acting which I rarely see.

I feel unworthy saying this but the point of this blog is to record what I see, hear and learn. I have no doubt though that the next time one of the major Russian theatre companies comes to London I will be there. As with the visit of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia last year (Smile Upon Us Lord review at the Barbican Theatre review ***) the style may not grab me, the stories obviously do. And I am grateful to those who financed this visit. Anything that promotes mutual understanding of our histories must surely be valuable.

Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Coraline

Barbican Theatre, 7th April 2018

Was I the only person in the audience who knew nothing about Neil Gaiman’s 2003 cult children’s fantasy novella from whence came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Coraline? It certainly felt like it. To be fair the provenance had dawned on me some time before the performance, but when I booked my perch it was the composer which drew me in not the subject. I guess if I had known more I might not have taken the plunge for fear of feeling a bit odd amongst this very youthful, in parts, audience. I am glad ignorance prevailed for I can report that this was a very fine entertainment indeed.

Music first. It isn’t MAT’s most inventive composition that is true though there are more than enough surprises to hold the attention of the musicophile. What it does do is fit Rory Mullarkey’s bracingly direct libretto, and Mr Gaiman’s pleasingly dark fable like the proverbial glove. It is through-composed, retaining MAT’s trademark spiky, jazzy, Stravinskian, often dissonant, tonality, with very little accommodation to its intended audience. Yet the musical ideas are plain enough even to the untutored ear (including mine). Our ageing actresses singing across the melody in their big number, their waltzes shifting to tangoes as we jump the house “divide”, the mouse orchestra, the close harmonies when ghosts are abroad and the way the Mother’s music darkens as we move from Good to Bad. Sian Edwards is an outstanding advocate of smaller scale new opera music, (she conducted the premiere of MAT’s debut opera Greek). The  Britten Sinfonia are about the best advocates of new music in this country. Put them together and the results are unsurprisingly sublime, bringing life to the score even when it flagged a touch. And Britten, whose Noye’s Fludde might be the best opera involving children because it, er, involves a lot of children, feels like he was an influence here.

Coraline, sung on this occasion by Robyn Allegra Parton, is a bolshie tween, who has just moved in to a new home with overbearing Mum, Kitty Whately, and kindly, inventor Dad, Alexander Robin Baker. The neighbours, Mr Bobo (Harry Nicoll), and the Misses Spink (Gillian Keith) and Forcible (Frances McCafferty), are a bit odd to say the least. The former directs a mouse orchestra and the latter were one time, fruity thespians. The front room of the flat has a door; Coraline walks through it to discover …. a mirror image of the room and parents with sown-up eyes, and another mother bent on evil. You can guess the rest even if you don’t know it. And even if you can’t guess there are plenty of people who could tell you.

If I am honest the couple of hours ex-interval running time could have been squeezed down to 90 minutes straight through, though I guess this might have tested the patience of some of the younger members of the audience. I have to say the youngsters were impeccably behaved throughout, reflecting the quality of what they were seeing and hearing, and putting to shame many an older audience what with their coughs, fidgeting, phone screens and snacking. Having just wrestled with a couple of excitable nephew/nieces the prior weekend I can appreciate just how well-behaved this audience was.

I can see why Rory Mullarkey felt the need to labour the story with excess exposition to ensure everyone knew where we were, but there was the odd time when the recitative might have been condensed. This too might have focussed the ear more on the best of MAT’s invention, and the fine stagecraft marshalled under Aletta Collin’s direction. The magic in particular was a tad underwhelming. On the other hand Giles Cadle’s claustrophobic revolving set, at the front of the otherwise blacked-out cavernous Barbican Theatre stage, was a marvel

The cast though was terrific, especially Robyn Allegra Parton as our heroine, who has a lot of singing to get through, and Kitty Whately as Bad Mum/Good Mum. Apparently Ms Whately had a bit of a sore throat for this performance. Only just about audible and it certainly did not inhibit her performance in any way. I recently saw her Sesto in Giulio Cesare, where she also stood out. Even with my ropey ears I heard most every line, which I can’t always claim is the case when the RSC treads the boards here.

Now this is a fair distance from Mr Turnage’s shocking breakthrough opera Greek, based on Stephen Berkhoff’s play, in turn drawn from Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex. To this day that remains one of the finest pieces of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, at the ENO in 1990. His last full length opera, Anna Nicole, wasn’t too kid friendly either. I have never seen The Silver Tassie, based on Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, though there is a concert performance in the diary.

I see MAT has indicated he may call it a day on opera after some critical muppets have had a pop at the score for Coraline, berating its relative simplicity. That would be a great shame IMHO. There is no doubt the audience was thoroughly bowled over by MAT’s family opera, even if these critics, who presumably never were, or never had, kids, are too blinkered to appreciate its appeal.

I don’t doubt a fair few of these critics get off on the gross, uber-mensch, toddler fantasies of racist, anti-semite Richard Wagner. Hmmmm…..

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Great Apes

Arcola Theatre, 31st March 2018

I sort of lost track with Will Self the author after The Book of Dave. His sprawling, satirical fantasies with a lot of big words, unreliable narratives and narrators, drugs, mental dislocation, is never short of imagination and ideas, but aren’t always that easy, or pleasurable, to read. He is very clever and very funny, and he knows it, and really likes to show it. His influences are many, and obvious, Ballard, Burroughs, Heller, and then back through Kafka, Joyce, Voltaire and Swift. I gather he too has given up on the novel, all of them, not just his.

I did enjoy Great Apes however and its successor How the Dead Live. Our protagonist, artist Simon Dykes (Simon/simian geddit), whose prime artistic concern is, surprise, surprise, perspective, wakes up after a bender to find his girlfriend, Sarah, is a chimpanzee. And so is everybody else. His human “delusion” means he is taken in by psychiatrist Zack Busner, Will Self’s stock character, here an alpha male chimp. From this transparent inversion Self shines a light on human, and chimpanzee behaviours, we’re not so different, and on the nature of mental illness and reality. Because the satire is so primitive, as it were, and has been done to death in those wretched Planet of the Apes films, Self has to concentrate his powers on the narrative and the characters in a way that sometimes escapes him in the other novels. By colliding chimpanzee and human society and culture, Self sheds light on our own behaviours, fears and dysfunctions. It is also adroitly pokes fun at our own human exceptionalism. London, drugs, mental illness, “false” narratives are all explored, as you would expect, but there also some affecting exploration of relationships, which you don’t really expect from the lugubrious Mr Self.

In short its is clever yes, but with a purpose, and it has a proper plot. How then to put it on stage. Well first break it down into the key scenes. Mr Self’s detailed imagining of this alternative society has to run alongside the story of Simon’s journey from human “reality” through “delusion” and eventually to explanation, and Dr Busner’s rise and fall. To get it on to the Arcola stage needed some perspicacious work from adapter Patrick Marmion, which we have. It also needed the creative team of director Oscar Pearce, designer Sarah Beaton, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Dan Balfour, movement director Jonnie Riordan, costume supervisor Kate Hemstock and the puppetry team of Tom Espiner and Mala Kirkman-Richards, to combine to reveal enough to allow our imaginations to do the rest. In this they succeeded, a remarkable achievement given limitations of space and budget.

Perhaps the most important technical contribution however came from chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. Now I will stake a wild guess that there aren’t too many people with that particular job title. His bio shows that he has worked on a number of major films involving primates, real and imagined, and, most remarkably, it says he became the first ever person to integrate with the colony of chimps at the University of Oklahoma.

I am also guessing the cast has down too much auditioning for primate work in the past. The way they combined voice, body and the simple props, benches, ladders and specialised crutches, (not sure if they have a special name), to simulate chimpanzee movement, sound and behaviour, was really impressive. Whilst Bryan Dick playing Simon and Ruth Lass playing Dr Zack, that’s right, in a piece of inspired casting we had a woman playing the alpha male here just to mess up our heads a bit more, the other five actors doubled up, or more. Yep they had to take on the character of not just one but several different chimpanzees. I was particularly struck by the performance of Ruth Everett as Busner’s assistant Jane Bowen, artist Tabitha Buckfast and Eve Knight, a film-maker.

Now I will admit with so much to pack in there were times when ambition overreached execution. Some of the plot had to be chivvied along especially towards the end. To have covered everything in the book would have been technically and dramatically impossible, and some of the intelligent subtleties and artistic allusion of the book gets a bit lost along the way.

Still you will end the evening definitely entertained, in awe of the technical achievement and with plenty to think about even if you may not entirely connect to the characters. Then again they’re chimps aren’t they? How would you connect to them? They’re animals aren’t they? They’re not as special as us are they what with out technology, language and civilisation?