Orphee at ENO review ***

Orphee

English National Opera, 27th November 2019

The Mask of Orpheus. Extraordinary music, fine singing, showy production. Orpheus and Eurydice. Fine music, mostly, superb singing, faulty production. So how would the Tourist fair in his third encounter with the Orpheus myth in the ENO season. Well since you ask. Best production of the three by far courtesy of Netia Jones, who also oversaw costume and video, and Lizzie Clachlan’s multi-faceted set. Mind you I knew just how good Ms Jones’s ideas can be, heavy though they are on monochrome video visuals, thanks to her memorable take on Britten’s Curlew River in 2013. Singing, well singing-through, since the libretto is a pretty straight, (here closely translated into English by the versatile Ms Jones and Emma Jenkins), lift from the Cocteau 1950 film script, that was more than up to the task notably from Nicholas Lester as our eponymous hero, coloratura Jennifer France as the baddie Princess and, unsurprisingly, Nicky Spence as the ominous chauffeur Heurtebise. Music faultlessly executed by the ENO orchestra as usual under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson, though it is near two hours of Philip Glass with all the good and bad that implies.

So why wasn’t I bowled over. Well I think that comes down to the source material. Jean Cocteau was a wilful fellow, with talent to burn across media, even when off his tits on opium, but he did have his bugbears and did not see any problem with excess self-love. His film is Art with a big A, about love, death and jealously like its source, but also about how the Artist operates in a realm far beyond that occupied by us ordinary mortals. Indeed Orphee here is a misunderstood poet who seeks immortality. With the help of a lot of mirrors. Cocteau thought he was special and was determined to show us. More Narcissus and Thanatos than Orpheus maybe, though with more than a whiff of grumpy old man misogyny. Mind you Cocteau himself came in for a lot of criticism from the artistic elite, notably the Surrealists, which was often tinged with homophobia. The most obvious inspiration for his aesthetic in the film is surely Man Ray.

The film is a mix of dream and naturalism set in 1950s Paris. A drunken night out ends with younger poet rival to Orphee, Cegeste (Anthony Gregory) mown down by a couple of motor bikes after a fight. The mysterious Princess steps in to help, but instead abducts Orphee to a chateau, where she, her lackeys and the reanimated (!) Cegeste disappear. No problem as Heurtebise returns Orphee to his hone where the coppers, wife put upon Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) and feminist friend Aglaonice (Rachael Lloyd) are wondering what he has been up to. Heurtebise moves in and falls for the pregnant Eurydice. Orphee gets obsessed with the radio which may be talking to him via some ropey poetry, Eurydice is murdered by the Princess’s lackeys and Heurtebise and Orphee make a trip to the Underworld. A dodgy Court says he can take Orphee back, subject to the usual condition, when he declares he no longer fancies Death/The Princess. Eurydice fatally looks at hubby in the car mirror and so back to square one, with Orphee joining her after getting shot at the bar where all this shenanigans kicked off. Back to the Underworld to have memories wiped for O & E with Death/Princess and Heurtebise checking in for good.

Worth knowing all this and brushing up on the synopsis though even so I confess to losing the thread a few times through the 18 scenes. And to not fully appreciating the point of the many “framing” extras that Ms Jones introduces. No matter. Glass’s score contains just enough variation to demarcate the shifts in the odd narrative and in character, (this was still well before Glass drifted into auto-pilot mode), and visually the production is a treat with Netia Jones emulating Cocteau’s own mix of lo and hi (for the time) cinematographic technique to provide an equally striking impression. Cocteau made it up as he went along. Ms Jones, along with Lucy Carter (lighting) and Danielle Agami (choreography), and unlike some other directors at the ENO recently, takes a far more methodical approach, which, deliberately mirrors the film (with direct video quotes), and its “making of” successor, Le Testament d’Orphee, whilst still remembering to be an opera. As I think Glass envisaged even if he wrote for French not English and maybe with a smaller stage in mind.

Philip Glass long harboured an ambition to convert Cocteau’s vision into opera after spending 1954 in a hedonistic whirl in Paris. (He returned in the mid 1960s to study under Nadia Boulanger). It was composed in 1991 just after his wife, artist Candy Jernigan, died unexpectedly from liver cancer. He went on to compose two further operas based on Cocteau’s films, La Belle et la Bete (1994) and Les Enfants Terribles (1996).

The Antipodes at the National Theatre review ****

The Antipodes

National Theatre Dorfman, 23rd November 2019

I’ll tell you what. That Annie Baker backs herself. Here is another long play, near 2 hours straight through, where, visually, nothing much happens, bar a properly weird interlude, and dense with word. And this time it is a story about stories, Yep that’s right. The meta of meta. Six assorted punters (five men and just one woman) are ranged around a glass, conference style table telling each other stories in an attempt to create a story. Mediated by their distracted passive aggressive boss Sandy (the ever wonderful Conleth Hill), with occasional interruptions from his chipper assistant Sarah (Imogen Doel) to take food orders, excuse Sandy’s absences and chivvy the crew, and the voice of mogul “Max” (Andrew Woodall) who is bankrolling the enterprise. And with a note taker, Brian (Bill Milner), who eventually, memorably, gets stuck in.

It looks and feels like a scriptwriter’s meeting but its real purpose is never fully revealed and the rules of engagement are vague. Just see what happens seems to be Sandy’s instruction and from this all sorts of stuff pours out, from personal disclosures and confessionals, jokes, classical myth and allusion, gods, monsters, religious dualism, stories about stories, right through to various creation myths. It is affecting, thoughtful, funny, intriguing. Chloe Lamford’s set, complete with Perrier overload, Natasha Chiver’s garish lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound, Sasha Milavic Davies’s movement (much use of swivel chairs), all echo the hyper-reality, or do I mean hyper-banality, of Annie Baker’s text, which gradually shifts the apparently mundane into the realms of the extraordinary. No surprise that Ms Lamford and Ms Baker co-direct.

It doesn’t quite scale the heights of profundity that it sets out to achieve, or the genuine grace of predecessor John, and it probably stole 20 minutes of my life more than it should have, but you still couldn’t fault its ambition and verve. In trying our patience, and venturing into the Freudian “uncanny”, it gets right under your skin even if it doesn’t shed too much fresh light on the creation of collective, and self, narrative. But it does cover all the bases, maybe too many, as concept overwhelms even this committed execution. Though with actors of this quality, Fisayo Akinade, Matt Bardock, Arthur Darvill, Hadley Fraser, Stuart McQuarrie and Sinead Matthews as the writers), individual character emerges out of the ensemble.

I guess the point was that whilst the urge to share our truth and humanity, and bring meaning to pointless existence, through stories remains undimmed, our capacity to do so might be fading, (especially as chaos in the outside world seeped into the ill-judged ending). Or maybe not. The vagueness of purpose is all part of the attraction in Annie Baker’s practice, so best just to go with the intractable flow and don’t pull too hard on the individual, intellectual, threads. It won’t be one of my top 10 2019 theatrical events but was still a story that could not be missed.

The Doric String Quartet at Wigmore Hall review ****

Doric String Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 22nd November 2019

Benjamin Britten – String Quartets No 1 in D Op 25, No 2 in C Op 36 and No 3 Op 94

All three Britten string quartets in one evening. Courtesy of the Doric String Quartet. Who have been working hard on this very repertoire, visible in their recent acclaimed recording. The Quartet has a long association with Britten’s music, having formed at Pro Corda in 1998, the school near Aldeburgh, and with Helene Grimaud playing on Britten’s very own viola.

Britten’s music can, I imagine, sound either too austere or too cautious for many listeners, depending on their musical taste. Too flashy, relying on surface effect, in thrall to musical form, and not generating real emotion. A bit too obvious, even too “perfect” maybe, though not immediately appealing. For me though this is his genius. The musical ideas are clear, but still present a challenge to those of us who don’t really understand music, even though they are not actually that challenging. In 1970s football parlance, one of those technical European midfielders, “good on the ball” but somehow suspect, lacking passion or “an engine”. But with performers who love and understand the music, and locate its centre and line, then there is feeling and passion aplenty. Easiest to find in the vocal and choral works and the operas but also abundant, for me at least, in the chamber music and, specifically, the three string quartets.

Which is where the Dorics step in. For there is no holding back here. They have a big, muscular sound which, whilst never obscuring the clarity of thought which is BB’s trademark, especially in the super sparse Third gives the quartets a punch and a drama that I haven’t encountered before. Less ascetic, more buoyant. Though never too extroverted, true I believe to BB’s intentions. Though with plenty of volume when required.

The First was completed in 1941, to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge during Britten and Pears’s US sojourn, (though it is not actually the first quartet, BB having revived an early composition in the key of D, when just 17, late in life). It starts with a yearning sostenuto, missing Blighty perhaps, is followed by a swanky runaround Allegretto, a nocturnal Andante led by Alex Redington’s violin and ending with the sparkling harmonies of a rondo finale. Easy to place in the flash harry early years for BB.

Which is why the Second Quartet composed just 4 years later, when BB was deep in Peter Grimes, is still so surprising to me. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, BB’s beloved forebear, it kicks off with a full throated Allegro, owing much to Schubert in feel and Haydn in form. The terse Vivace which follows links this movement to the final, stunning Chacony. BB just loved this form, variously chaconne or passacaglia, but his one is a belter. Near 20 minutes long, it shifts its shape continuously and, in places, gets a bit weird. The Doric’s really got hold of it and gave it a good shake. Loved it.

Which in turn set up the Third. BB waiting 30 years before coming back to the form and was near the end by the time he started. Not quite as death suffused as DSCH’s final fifteenth quartet, but still pretty bleak. At least until the final Passacaglia movement. In a work that quotes liberally from the final opera Death in Venice, this movement, like its equivalent in the opera, suggests a peaceful farewell for the protagonist, whether Aschenbach or BB. Prior to that, in the oppositional two part Duets, the jarring Ostinato scherzo, the central poignant Solo cantilena for first violin and the scorching Burlesque which precedes the descriptive Recitative which introduces that Passacaglia, we hear some of BB’s best ever beats.

As good a performance of BB’s quartets as you are likely to hear and, a reminder of why they are up there with late Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich as the best of the form.

On Bear Ridge at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

On Bear Ridge

Royal Court Theatre, 21st November 2019

Knockout premise. Some splendid dialogue. Beguiling, complex characters. Inspired design courtesy of Cai Dyfans. Supported by the lighting of Elliot Griggs and sound of Mike Beer, And engaging performances from the outstanding Welsh cast of Rhys Ifans, Rakie Ayola (the first time I had seen her on stage), Sion Daniel Young and Jason Hughes.

So what was it that left me a little underwhelmed by Ed Thomas’s latest play On Bear Ridge, transferring to the RC after opening at Cardiff’s Sherman. I guess it was the age old problem of development and resolution. Having taken so much care to set up a potent setting, (not always the case when it comes to the theatrical post-apocalyptic), and to flesh out generous back stories for devoted couple, irascible butcher John Daniel and calming wife Noni, their slaughterman apprentice Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) and the Captain, an exhausted, deserting soldier (Jason Hughes), the narrative seems to runs out of steam, even as the, often startling poetry, accumulates. This is a play about nostalgia, memory, loss and glottophagy (look it up), as the couple, holed up in their dilapidated Welsh mountain home, feel the past, and the wider world, slip away from them. Lists of meat cuts, old customers, even John Daniel’s trousers are seized on to fix their history. they reference a dying “Old Language”. It soon becomes clear though that what really holds them together, and Ifan William, is the love of Twm Siencyn, their son and his best friend/lover.

It is not a long play, just over 80 minutes, and, to be fair. never drags, but I wonder if Ed Thomas could not have been more incisive with his text. The Beckettian dialogue he spins is incisive and immersive, earthy and lyrical, fluently invoking time, place and character, but in the absence of evolution in the plot meant this might have worked better at under an hour. No shame in brevity when your facility with language is so adept, though ET has spent most of the last two decades writing for the small screen. Mr Thomas shared direction with RC head honcho Vicky Featherstone so I might reasonably assume that over-writing, not execution, was the cause of my slight misgivings.

I see the Sherman is set to stage another Welsh post apocalypse saga in the form of and adaptation Manon Steffan Ros’ novel Llyfr Glas Nebo. And JJoe Murphy, the incoming AD, is set to direct a new adaptation of An Enemy of the People, from Brad Birch (another doyen of the theatrical Welsh mountain sub-genre with Black Mountain), set in South Wales.

Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

Much Ado About Nothing at Wiltons Music Hall review ****

Much Ado About Nothing

Wilton’s Music Hall, 19th November 2019

The Tourist has been very much taken with previous Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory productions, Othello and Henry V, both here and on home turf in Bristol. This latest, MAAN, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, as was Henry V, and who will be bringing Stef Smith’s take on A Doll’s House to the Young Vic next year, didn’t quite match these predecessors but still provided an entertaining, if inconsistent, evening of Shakespeare comedy.

At least it did when I snuck downstairs in the second half. I had forgotten just how dire the sound is upstairs at WMH, blighted by reverb, even if there are now some comfy perches. Not a big deal, and for some of the actors no deal at all, but it did mean that I had to strain to hear the lines of, particularly Alice Barclay as Ursula, Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice and Imran Momen as Claudio. And, in Shakespeare, every word counts, however often ypu may have seen or read the play. In fact the more viewings the richer the language becomes.

Now MAAN is a comedy. And, unlike some of the Bard’s other comedies, it largely sticks to the make the punters laugh script. Even so, in amongst the comic couplings and the gossip, rumour, eavesdropping and misunderstandings, the “noting” of the original title, there are some dark ideas, to do with honour and patriarchal dominance, as Daddy Leonato (Christopher Bianchi) farms out his daughter Hero (Hannah Bristow) to Claudio and doesn’t for a moment consider she might be innocent of the charge of adultery. As ever with WS there is a questioning of gender stereotypes, even as those stereotypes are played out, which is what drives the comedy and is what Ms Freestone alights on in her interpretation through her gender blind casting, notably Georgia Frost (who stood out as she did in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase), as Don Pedro’s (Zachary Powell) here sister Don Jon, and, less successfully Louise Mai Newberry as Dogberry.

Of course MAAN largely succeeds or fails on the “chemistry” between Beatrice and Benedick and here Ms Myer-Bennett, who it has been my pleasure to see in multiple plays in the last few years, and Geoffrey Lumb, who is a fine, and experienced, Shakespearean, were up for the fight. Verbal sparring only, of course, but sufficiently pointed throughout that at the end, you still sensed they would be chary of each others’ true feelings long after the ceremonies when we had all left Messina. Maybe not quite up to the benchmark set by Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett in Christopher Luscombe‚Äôs RSC version from 2017 but still eminently watchable. Ms M-B’s Beatrice is, by some way, the smartest person in the room, but wields her fierce intelligence deliberately. Underneath the boorish exterior typical of his profession and sex there lurks a sensitive soul in Mr Lumb’s Benedick.

Some of the other relationships in the slimmed down dramatis personae don’t work quite as well. This tender Claudio’s love for his demure Hero persuades, his harsh about-turn later on less so. The soldiers’s banter works, the sibling rivalry between the Don’s seems forced. The party, complete with superhero costumes, clever, excites, the pivot to the disastrous wedding day, feels telegraphed, and the switch back to what is, in fairness, not the most hilarious Watch scene I have ever encountered, seemed to take this audience by surprise.

All in all, whilst there are some splendid passages and performances in the production. all set against Jean Chan’s delightful design, the rhythm of this STF production is just a little too erratic. However, once I was up close, the largely prose dialogue was, without exception (which is not always the case), pin sharp in its delivery. Whilst the look, feel and intention of the production is to present a MAAN for all time, that it works is largely down to this lucid approach.

Minus the echo of course. Won’t make that mistake again.

Shook at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

Shook

Southwark Playhouse, 16th November 2019

The Papatango New Writing Prize is apparently the biggest of its kind in the UK, offering its winner the guarantee of a production and a commission to support a follow up play. The Funeral Director, Hanna, Trestle, Foxfinder, and especially Matt Grinter’s Orca, have all impressed me. Many of the writers have gone on to successful careers. This year’s winner, Shook, is as good, if not better than its predecessors, and, on the basis of this, I pray that its writer Samuel Bailey, has more ideas up his sleeve.

Shook is set in a young offenders institute where three young men, with expectant partners, are taking a class in parenthood facilitated by Grace (Andre Hall). Jonjo (Josef Davies) is initially skittish, agonised by the violent crime he has committed, whose nature and context takes time to emerge. Scouser Cain (Josh Finan) is incapable of self-censorship and sports an empty swagger. In contrast Riyad (Ivan Oyik) is more self-assured, deadpan in attitude, but keen to use education to help him thrive post his impending release. Samuel Bailey’s pin sharp dialogue initially accentuates the masculine banter, and is very funny, but gradually the deeper truths about the three young men emerge. Cain’s hyper-activity masks his helplessness, life inside preferable to the chaos of his upbringing, to Jonjo’s harrowing realisation that his reaction to provocation has ruined his chance of the normal family life he craves and Riyad’s temper and bravado sabotage his fierce intelligence. They may be young offenders, the exchange of sweets reminds us of their youth, but upbringing, society and system seem destined to conspire to break any chance they have of rehabilitation.

The characters are brilliantly crafted, back-stories and expectations, emerging naturally which is remarkable given the deliberately confined setting, and is helped by having the matter-of-fact Andrea as an emotional foil to contrast with the disclosures that emerge from the three men’s burgeoning friendship. The play doesn’t set out to be didactic or hammer home a message but still secures the audience’s sympathy for the wasted lives that seem set to emerge. The classes may ultimately be futile but at least offer some opportunity of catharsis for the three.

Jasmine Swan’s naturalistic set, is perfectly realised, and director George Turvey, focusses as much on the movement and non-verbal, as verbal, communication between characters, which, given the quality of the dialogue, is no mean achievement. Above all though it is the three young actors who utterly persuade. We are asked to imagine their lives before, beyond and outside, that we do so reflects their total commitment.

Fascinated to see what Mr Bailey comes up with next.