Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

Cyrano de Bergerac

Playhouse Theatre, 30th January 2020

I appreciate the utter pointlessness of me rabbiting on right now about theatre productions that have come and gone but since I am ill equipped to do anything but stay out of the way as instructed, then forgive me my indulgence. Actually I can, as maybe some of you can, by shifting a few quid in the direction of those that need it. Theatres, homeless charities, food banks and women’s refuges all need the money you are saving from staying. If you find yourself, like me, in a position of fortunate security right now this is the least you can do.

The Tourist is not a big fan of the value/comfort ratio offered at the Playhouse Theatre. Compounded with the aggressive pricing strategy pursued by the Jamie Lloyd Company and producers in the current season as they seek to hook the punters in with big name stars of the big screen. And, whilst being a big fan of his librettos for the operas of George Benjamin, I have been a little underwhelmed by recent productions of Martin Crimp’s own plays.

Still there is a reason why (I think I am right in saying this) Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is the most oft performed play in the French language, subject to many interpretations at home and abroad. And, plainly, the critics adored it. So, after a long wait, the Tourist finally secured a ticket for his favoured pitch at said Playhouse at a fair price and settled in to see what all the fuss was about.

Well if you have seen it, live or via the cinema broadcast before you know what put paid to Life As We Knew It, then you will know that the hype is to be believed. It remains just a slam dunk brilliant story but MC’s jaw dropping contemporised verse translation/adaptation, Soutra Gilmour’s stripped bare set and a magnificent cast led by a magnetic James McAvoy, have turned it into landmark theatre.

Modern dress, microphones, bare wood stage, cast always on show, minimal propping. All the art regie-theatre tropes are on display. You don’t get much to look at for your money. Not even a false nose. But what you do get is brilliant story telling which thrillingly celebrates the art of language and communication. Between characters, actors and audience. This is still supposed to be a French theatre in 1640. But there are no visual clues. Everyone is miked. With supplementary beat-box courtesy of Vaneeka Dadhria.

Of course the style, in all senses, was set to appeal to a younger than normal audience. The young adults at the performance the Tourist attended brought infectious energy which melted even this curmudgeonly heart. but the real triumph is the way that James McAvoy as proud artist/hero Cyrano, Eben Figuieredo as sincere jock/lover Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as a feminist/intellectual Roxane are all simultaneously confident and vulnerable, desperate for and dismissive of, love, in a way that is both right now and timeless. This yin and yang from the central menage a trois, with the added prodding, pimping and pumping from the other characters, (notably Michele Austin as cook/poet and Tom Edden as baddie De Guiche), seeps into the rhythm of the text, alternately muscular and tender. The cast never lose sight of the story and there are, even with the threadbare visual resources, some stunning scenes, aided and abetted by Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham boys’ sound design, notably the classic wooing switch. But it is MC’s text that is the star of the show. Along with the amazing Mr McAvoy. Like Jamie Lloyd we all know the Scottish fella has just got it. White Teeth, Last King of Scotland, State of Play, The Ruling Class. All proof for me with no need to touch any of his Hollywood blockbusters.

Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant direction, (with a shout out to Polly Bennett’s movement), make this stylised take zip along, nothing getting in the way of poetry or character. OK so there are times when the imperative to claim immediate relevance masks the pathos, especially at the rushed conclusion, (though there were still plenty of throat lumps, oohs and aahs in my audience), but this is a still price to pay for the meaning uncovered and excitement generated by the production.

Leopoldstadt at Wyndhams Theatre review ****

Leopoldstadt

Wyndham’s Theatre, 29th January 2020

A new play from the venerable 82 year old Sir Tom Stoppard. Not our greatest living playwright. That is Caryl Churchill, but he does know his way around a text. So booked early, for early in the run and before knowing too much about it.

You will likely know by now that Sir Tom has chosen to delve into his family’s own history and his Jewish heritage for this play, which I can see would be a fitting swansong, if swansong it is. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but escaped to Britain with his family ahead of the Nazi occupation, and was educated in India and then Yorkshire. Whilst he had become aware in the 1990s of the full extent of his roots, (which his mother had chosen to shield him from), as well as the fact that many of his relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he had indicated that he would likely write a play based on this history, he had been ambivalent about making it too personal.

I don’t know how much of the plot, and specifically the key events which punctuate it, are drawn from TS’s own family history, nor indeed how closely the characters resemble his own forebears, (though the character of Leo is surely autobiographical), but there is no doubting his emotional investment in this grand saga. Particularly at the end, in an epilogue which is as moving as anything you might ever see on stage.

We kick off in Vienna in 1899 at a gathering of the Merz and Jakobovicz families at Christmas (and later passover). Bullish businessman Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, on his usual top form) is married to gentile Gretl (Faye Castelow), having, pragmatically, converted to her Catholicism. They have one son Jacob. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is married to obsessive mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard, yes, he is) who has two sisters, Wilma (Clara Francis), married to Ernst (Aaron Neil), and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, continuing the Tourist’s fortunate habit of seeing everything she does on stage), who is married to Kurt (Alexander Newland, who we meet later on). With their various kids, cook Poldi (Sadie Shimmin), parlour maid Hilde (Felicity Davidson), nursemaid Jana (Natalie Law) and all presided over by Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber). Thank goodness for the family tree in the programme which the Tourist furtively turned to early doors.

With this many characters, and to set the contextual and didactic balls rolling, and because this is what Sir Tom does best, there is a lot of serious chat going on, as we learn how these well-to-do, educated and largely assimilated Jewish families see themselves, their faith, culture and economy, at a time of great change in Europe’s still premier metropolis. And, inevitably in the first act, bucketloads of exposition. The Merz family doesn’t live in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district but its status as the centre of Jewish life in the city looms large. The anti-semitism is subtle as well as overt, but its deep historical roots are unmistakeable. Hermann tries and fails to join the jockey club, Ludwig’s hopes of a professorship are far-fetched, and ugly truths are revealed, along with the superb Luke Thallon’s cruel Aryan officer, Fritz.

The play really gets going then after the interval, as we move first to 1924, another family gathering for a circumcision, meeting the cosmopolitan children of the four couples, and then, momentously 1938, and the grandchildren. This is the cue for high drama, for example, the forced repossession of the Merz family home, and eviction, Kristallnacht (vividly realised through Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design), the memory of Pauli (Ilan Galkoff) lost in the WWWi trenches. Then, finally to 1955, when Leo (Luke Thallon), the English emigre son of Nellie (Eleanor Wyld), daughter of Eva and Ludwig, and Nathan (Sebastian Armesto, also doubling), son of Sally (Ayve Leventis), daughter of Wilma and Ernst, are brought together by Nathan’s sister, Rosa (Jenna Augen). This, or something like it, is, I’d like to think, how Sir T first encountered his own history, and planted the seed for Leopoldstadt.

The dialogue is direct, even during the debates on, variously, identity, assimilation, prejudice, Zionism, the recurring history is familiar and there is none of the intellectual trickery that powers Sir T’s back catalogue though there is a bit of heavy lifting from a recurring cat’s cradle metaphor. The family’s beliefs in science, justice and rationality are crushed by the rise of Nazism, but it is the personal loss more than the collective that, eventually strikes home, with Hermann’s descent the most affecting. It is a slow burn mind you, and Patrick Marber’s direction is perhaps a little too respectful. Richard Hudson’s painterly design. together with Neil Austin’s lighting and Brigitte Riefenstuhl’s costumes ooze period detail, but further hinder any opportunity for many of the 26 strong cast (not including the kids) to make a distinct mark.

Still if this is to be Sir T’s last play then why shouldn’t he tell his story his way, given his immense contribution to British and World theatre across his career. At our early viewing (the SO was a more than willing accomplice) the audience was engrossed throughout, if nor utterly captivated, and I suspect many will have been grateful to have had their emotions, perhaps even more than their intellects, engaged. The story of this horror has been told in many ways before, and should continue to be told, but Sir T has found a way to tell it that, whilst not theatrically radical, is profoundly moving, as well as stuffed with learning.

I have no doubt it will be back when we reach the other side, and it is not hard to see it being repurposed for the small screen.

You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

You Stupid Darkness!

Southwark Playhouse, 28th January 2020

With a whimper not a bang. That’s how the world ends in Sam Steiner’s new play. Though, given where we are now, (and as many reviews of this play seem to demand), you might be forgiven for thinking our selfish species will want to engineer something more dramatic for the end of days. Except, of course, it won’t be the end of days. It will just be the end of us. An incredibly adaptable species that wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was, after a miniscule time on Earth engineered its own extinction, whilst, unforgivably, though there is nothing to forgive, taking most of the rest of the planet’s life with it.

We never know what exactly what is going on outside the room in which our four volunteers, Frances, Angie, Joey and Angie, come every Tuesday night to Brightline to offer comfort to strangers, Samaritans style, on the phone. But it isn’t good, the weather is awful, infrastructure is failing and the team turn up in gas masks. Everything is plainly not going to be OK, keeping calm and carrying on is the default, not the resolute, choice. The phones may still be working, donuts (and this would matter to me) are still on sale, daily routines are still being followed, but, if you are familiar with the analogy, the water temperature is increasing and the frog is being boiled.

Turns out that our four characters each face their own personal misfortunes and, despite their temperamental differences, turn to each other, as well as their callers, for solace. Frances (Jenni Maitland) leads the team, is the eternal optimist, dispensing management mumbo-jumbo, but, pregnant in an increasingly sterile world, petrified at what the future holds for her unborn child. Tense Joey (Andrew Finnigan) is wise beyond his years, Jon (Andy Rush), the fatalistic foil to Frances’s buoyancy, is trapped in a failing relationship and fragile Angie (some scene stealing from Lydia Larsen, until she exits for much of the second half, we don’t find out why), empathises with callers by opening up herself.

Sam Steiner wisely forces no grand narrative or formal experiment on his play. There is not much in the way of plot. Nothing very dramatic happens. There is no great resolution or even much of an ending beyond the backers of the helpline pulling their funding. The comedy, and pathos, flows naturally from the conversation. Amy Jane Cook’s set is similarly low-key. Lights turn off. Kettles fuse. Posters fall off walls. Paintwork is peeling. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design also limits gesture and director James Grieve is unafraid of the pause. This unhurried approach pays dividends though means that the energy of the production, like the lights (Peter Small), occasionally dips, and it wasn’t to everyone’s taste on a less than half full Tuesday matinee but it suited me (and judging by the laughter a handful of others). And, if as I suspect, Mr Steiner’s aim was to find optimism in the bleak mundane, he indutiably succeeded.

I now wish I has seen Sam Steiner’s last play, also realised through Paines Plough, King Kanye about a white woman who wakes up one day to discover she is Kanye West, and, prior to that, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, in which the conceit is that language itself is rationed. I an a sucker for concept and imagination and Mr Steiner seems to have the gift. And he can right dialogue to match. I will watch his future career with interest.

The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

The Sugar Syndrome

Orange Tree Theatre, 27th January 2020

With last year’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, The Effect from 2012, (about to be revived at the fancy newish Boulevard), and ENRON from 2010, as well as Secret Diary of a Cal Girl and, most recently, the utterly brilliant Succession, Lucy Prebble has desrevedly become one of our most feted writers for stage and screen. The Sugar Syndrome dates from 2003 and was her first full length play, winning awards and getting an airing at the Royal Court directed by one Marianne Elliott, who has similarly gone on to bigger and better things.

It may not be a perfect play, the two central characters, 17 year old Dani, who is has left hospital after treatment for an eating disorder, and Tim, in his thirties, and being monitored after a spell in prison for sex offences, are exaggerated, and defined largely by their behaviours. Their meeting, after Dani poses as a young boy in a chat room, and subsequent friendship, with Dani seeking psychological equivalence and Tim rapidly opening up, is uncomfortable and doesn’t quite ring true. On the other hand it does allow Ms Prebble to explore questions around on-line personae, (well before many others – this was still the MySpace era with Zuckerberg only just about to kick off at Harvard), addiction, self-harm, paedophilia and relationship, and her extraordinary ear for memorable dialogue is as plain here as it is in the later texts.

Debutante Jessica Rhodes goes all in with Dani, a fearless, physically expressive performance. Dani’s worldly-wise exterior is paper-thin, whereas John Hollingworth is asked to hold back in his portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tim. We will see Jessica Rhodes again soon of that I have no doubt. Alexandra Gilbreath is Jan, Dani’s Mum, who truly doesn’t understand her, and Ali Barouti is Lewis, the older boyfriend that Dani also meets on-line and who she strings along, and whose jealously catalyses the disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion. Oscar Toeman’s direction, alongside Rebecca Brower’s set and Elliott Griggs’s lighting design, creates a sharp delineation between the on-line and real worlds. This, and the performances, help to focus Ms Prebble’s slightly over-plotted narrative.

Even it’s faults, this is still an arresting play for a 22 year old to have written and I was a little surprised to see that the OT could claim is as the first major revival.

Igor Levit plays Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues at the Barbican review *****

Igor Levit

Barbican Hall, 26th January 2020

Dmitri Shostakovich – 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87

If you going to be inspired by anyone to write a monumental piano piece than JS Bach is a good place to start, specifically his Well Tempered Clavier collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues. Like Bach DSCH created a purely musical structure, with no explicit or implicit narrative or meaning. Unlike Bach he did not adhere to a strict arrangement of parallel major/minors pairs ascending the chromatic scale, though all the keys of the scale are represented as both free-form prelude (like Chopin’s Op 28) and strucured fugue, and follow the logic of the circle of fifths (again like Chopin). However these vary in mood, pace, length and complexity, some barely a minute long, others like the rolling no 16 fugue (easily confused by me for a prelude) runs to 10 minutes, some, like fugue no 9 for just two voices, whilst no 13 is a dazzling five. DSCH refers to, and quotes from, JSB at various points (as well as other Baroque tropes) to amplify the debt, and, of course, this wouldn’t be DSCH if he didn’t quote himself at times.

The work was composed in winter 1950/51 after DSCH had attended a Bach musical festival in Leipzig where he judged the piano competition won by his compatriot the 26 yo Tatiana Nikolayeva. Inspired and impressed DSCH dedicated 24 P&F to her and she premiered the work publicly in Leningrad in 1952. Prior to this DSCH had to get it through the Union of Composers who predictably managed to find fault, thinking it glum and morbid, viewing the fugue as a Western, archaic form and objecting to the dissonance in many of the episodes. Still there was now only a year or so to go before Stalin died and the pressure on DSCH started to lift.

The benchmark recording, from Hyperion, is by Ms Nikolayeva herself, who, even after she was able to travel to the West, pretty much exclusively focussed on Bach and DSCH, with a bit of Beethoven thrown in. On fact it was the very last piece she played just before her death in 1992. She recorded the work in its entirety on three other occasions and others had since had a pop at it, Ashkenazy, Donohoe, Konstantin Scherbakov, even Keith Jarrett, but, because of its length, demands and style, many have also avoided it, or just recorded a selection (Richter and old Dmitri himself though plainly not because he hadn’t mastered it!). I had be looking to acquire the recent recording by Alexander Melnikov for whom I have an inordinate amount of time, but, after this astonishing interpretation from Igor Levit I might wait to see if he commits piano to recording studio.

There are those who diss DSCH’s P&F as just sketches for his larger scale works, yeah like which composer doesn’t have an overarching sound, or as just pastiche Bach. Plainly bollocks and maybe reflecting the fact that it hasn’t been oft recorded and requires a deal of effort and concentration from performer. Like I say the extracts I have heard Mr Melnikov play impressed but hearing the whole thing, near three hours even before a couple of intervals, was extraordinary. IL has a penchant for big, structured, piano works, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Ronald Stevenson’s 80 minute uninterrupted Passacaglia on DSCH, yep dedicated to you know who, and I was confident from hearing his way with Beethoven that I would likely enjoy this. But even so I was massively surprised by just how much detail and emotion he brought out in the music, to se alongside its obvious intellect, power and character.

Mr Levit has a big fan club amongst those that know and it isn’t difficult to see why. Hunched over the keyboard, all coiled intensity, fingers flashing, pounding keys, limiting use of the pedals, (though the stage floor took a n occasional pounding) which made the polyphony at times even more remarkable, building and then resolving tension, the architecture of each P&F articulated but without losing sight of the details. From the tranquil C major opening through to the triumphant, with caveat, D major final pairing, I was knackered by the end so goodness how drained IL felt. It must have taken a few glasses of Margaux to come down from that.

I don’t hold with this standing ovation nonsense for anything seen on stage. This time though no question. For exceptional artistry as well as phenomenal stamina.

Christ on the Mount of Olives: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director)

Barbican Hall, 19th January 2020

  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Beethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op 85

After a somewhat disappointing take on the Seventh Symphony paired with Berg’s Seven Early Songs just a few days previously, and, given the reputation of oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives as a somewhat lesser work from the pen of our Ludwig, the Tourist approached this concert with some trepidation. I have heard the piece but don’t own a recording and cannot claim to know it at all. Well, turns out it’s a belter. Fair enough its not the Missa Solemnis or the Mass in C major (which I happen to prefer), and there are a few routine, by Beethoven’s standards, passages but there are some sublime musical ideas and plenty of drama. Maybe not quite up there with Haydn’s oratorios but running closer than you might think.

LvB started writing Christus am Ölberge, to give it its German title, in 1802 just after he had written the harrowing Heiligenstadt Testament, and was first performed in 1803, though not published until 1811.The libretto comes from poet Franz Xaver Huber, and, in a very human way, deals with the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. The tenor takes the role of Jesus, the bass Peter and the soprano a seraph. Even after Christian Schreiber was enlisted to make significant changes to the libretto LvB wasn’t happy with the text, and opinion then and since has tended to look down on the overall tone and structure of the oratorio, with the exception of the gut busting Welten signen choral finale.

The piece suited Sir Simon’s sense of the dramatic and his ability to shape individual sections. Some of the solo and choral parts are really sensational, and, with the LSO seeming to relish the novelty, the orchestral writing was similarly striking. It kicks off with a call to action from the trombones before Pavel Breslik’s vivid tenor sets out Christ’s plaintive plea to God. This was followed by Elsa Dreisig’s lovely soprano, truly angelic, and then the chorus stiffening his resolve. David Soar’s bass in truth doesn’t get much of a look in and the chorus, as soldiers, disciples and the like only really get going in the second half of the story. But, when the LSO Chorus is finally unleashed, all 145 of them, the effect was magical.

Whilst I get why Sir Si whats to showcase as much Berg as he can, him being a fave composer of his, and the Violin Concerto is, similarly a tempting morsel, actually full four course meal with the two movements each divided into two sections, the prelude, then scherzo, the cadenza and finally chorale variations. Indeed when Sir Si was still in Berlin he came over a couple of years back to take it on with the LSO, though then with the peerless Isabelle Faust on the fiddle. That was a triumph as soloist and orchestra made sense of Berg’s most compelling exercise in reconciling romantic diatonicism with twelve note serialism. Here orchestra, conductor and soloist, Lisa Batiashvili, weren’t always quite on the same page, though it was impossible to fault Ms B’s articulate playing which went easy on the vibrato and always sensed the sharp dance that underpin’s Bartok’s tunes.

P.S. Anyone who is anyone in the Western art canon has had a stab at Christ in the Mount of Olives so plenty of choice for the pic above. Though I would give you some Goya though, just because I am, what with all this global misery, going through a bit of a Goya phase right now.

Accademia Bizantina at Milton Court review *****

Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (director)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 19th January 2020

Bach the Craftsman: The Art of Fugue

In which, as part of a Bach weekend curated by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, Ottavio Dantone and his troupe of crack HIP strings play the Art of Fugue. I should probably stop there as there isn’t anything to add really. It is the genius of JSB applied to the musical form that most reveals his genius, the fugue. A theme, the “subject” is heard in one “voice”, then repeated in imitation at different pitches in subsequent lines, before being developed, then returning to the subject in the tonic key. In this case served up 16 ways with a handful of canons thrown in at the end for good measure. With the greatest …… ending in artistic history.

To be played on harpsichord (for the very skilled and very brave), piano, quartet, or as here, expanded strings alongside harpsichord and diddy organ, 13 souls in total. Take your pick, though you would be hard pressed to top this version, which allows everyone line to be head and creates some surprising sonorities. AB were founded in the glorious city of Ravenna, M. Dantone joined in 1989, becoming music director in 1996, and they are amongst the foremost performers of Italian Baroque operas. My regular readers will know that I am a big fan of the rock’n’roll approach these Italian outfits take to their Baroque forebears. To hear them treat Bach’s prayer, for that is what it is, in the same way was simply thrilling. Ottavio Dantone is plainly a genius.

No better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.