Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House review ****

Billy Budd

Royal Opera House, 7th May 2019

The corruption of innocence, the struggle of good vs evil, Christ-like redemption and Pilate-like equivocation, the conflict between natural and legal justice, the outsider’s struggle for acceptance, repressed, scopophiliac, homosexual desire, the rational, scientific world contrasted with the mythic poetry of the imagination, dreams, the sea, the biblical musicality of his prose. Even the same initials. It isn’t much of a surprise than Benjamin Britten, who always fancied himself as a bit of a martyr, and his librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier alighted on Herman Melville’s classic novella for operatic treatment.

Forster had long been an admirer of Britten’s music, (who wouldn’t be), but the idea only crystallised in 1948. Eric Crozier was brought in to provide the expert, though not always smooth, link between composer and novelist. The premiere of the original production, in four acts, appeared on this very stage on 1st December 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. The revised two act version, with epilogue and prologue for Captain Vere alone, first appeared here in 1964 but it is 19 years since the ROH last staged it in a production directed by Francesca Zambello.

The last time I saw it was in 2012 at the ENO in the Expressionistic version served up by David Alden. In one of Dad’s more widely inappropriate attempts to get BD into opera she came along too. Smart-arse that she was, and is, the themes, even when concealed by Mr Alden’s somewhat wilful interpretation, didn’t evade her. Even under all that maritime lingo this isn’t subtle even when it is ambiguous.

Having witnessed director Deborah Warner’s way with BB in The Turn of the Screw many years ago at the Barbican and in the Death in Venice revival at the ENO in 2013, (with the SO who surprised herself with a favourable reaction), as well as Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, I wasn’t going to miss this production originally seen in Rome and Madrid. For once the Tourist paid up to sit downstairs though for opera of this scale, ( a cast of over 20 and a chorus of 60), and quality at this venue it seemed like a bargain when compared too the kind of bonkers prices the ROH normally requires from punters for a prime perch. Lucky for me those prices are generally the norm for the very repertoire I can’t abide.

(I know that there are bargains to be found, I normally sit in them, but they are compromised. Up in the amphitheatre you might be forgiven for thinking you had travelled to Zone 2, for example, and at the back of the balcony boxes you might want to take a book).

Billy Budd is BB’s grandest opera, in terms of music and ideas, but, self-evidently, it has one obvious constraint. Namely it is all blokes. BB is somewhat unfairly criticised for not serving up any top-drawer female roles. Ellen Orford, Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Female Chorus and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia and, though I can’t be sure since I have never seen it, Queen Liz I in Gloriana, are all surely exceptions, but the fact is, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in writing for the male voice where he excelled. In Billy Budd his cup overfloweth with the central trio of tenor (Captain Vere, the captain of The Indomitable), the bass of Master at Arms, John Claggart and the baritone of Billy himself. Then there are another fourteen named roles amongst the officers and the seaman, four boy treble midshipmen, the speaking only cabin boy and a singing chorus of 60, count ’em, augmented by another 30 actors. Put together the drama of the story and the opportunity to weave in traditional music, (including shanties,) with BB’s genius facility for word and scene painting in music and, wallop, you have, BB’s most powerful operatic score.

The orchestra doesn’t skimp on woodwind and brass, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba, and that’s before doubling up, or percussion, (though there are no “funny” tuned or untuned instruments smuggled in as in other works). So when conductor, here the reliable Ivor Bolton, orchestra and chorus are on song, as they were, especially that chorus under William Spaulding’s direction, then the director and principals have a strong base on which to build.

First decision for the director is whether to go full on 1797 or something more timeless. The former risks dialling up the salty procedurals in the scenes and libretto, the latter over-egging the psychological, parabolic, pudding. Deborah Warner has come out somewhere in the middle. The ROH chippies haven’t been beavering away creating a replica man of war. Instead the ship in Michael Levine’s design is conjured up from an immense skein of chains/ropes from which platforms, sails and hammocks, are suspended. This takes us above and below decks as required and leaves the chorus crew with, believable, work to do (choreography Kim Brandstrup). It’s brilliant. A near literal prison. Then again the rill of water front stage was maybe dispensable. The officer uniforms (costumes by Chloe Obolensky) are more mid C20 than late C18, with the crew in timeless sailor rags (albeit exquisitely tailored rags).

As with Death in Venice, the lighting design of Jean Kalman, (like the above, another of Ms Warner’s trusted collaborators), and Mike Gunning, (including that mist for the symbolic, unconsummated battle scene), is an integral part of Ms Warner’s vision. Billy Budd is not, even in the two act version, a hurried opera, rising and falling like the sea, (I may have got carried away here), to the key confrontations and confessionals. Deborah Warner’s allows some depth and breadth to emerge which maybe detracts from the required foul, claustrophobic atmosphere but brings the slippery themes, and overt symbolism, into focus. BB, whoever his collaborators, never allows moral certainty to emerge in his operas, that is why they are essentially so much better as theatre than most everything written in the previous century, (imagine Puccini or Wagner not melodramatically clunking you over the head every ten minutes – not possible see). Ms Warner wisely runs with BB’s uncertainty.

As usual the Tourist is not qualified to remark on the quality of the singing but, acting wise, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy himself stood out. Obvs he is good to look out, though not as much as Duncan Rock as Donald with his rippling abs, but he moves with complete naturalism and his Billy was “good” but never “simple”. And he certainly wrung some emotion out of his arias especially “the darbies”. Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, nails the giant credo, clear as a ship’s bell, and those inner demons, but could have been outwardly crueller. He is, as Ms Warner intended, an angel who is still falling, rather than full-on disciple of Satan. The still youthful looking Toby Spence’s De Vere does grow as the opera unfolds so that by the end, the “blessing” in the epilogue, he has us in the palm of his pious hand, but his remoteness in the first few scenes is disconcerting. I was also taken, again, with Thomas Olieman’s performance as Mr Redburn and Clive Bayley as the veteran Dansker.

Could you imagine a production that gets closer to some of the really dark questions about cruelty, sex, desire, exploitation and hierarchy that run counter to the narrative of atonement? Of course. Can I have a Billy who looks like who could deck and kill Claggart with one punch. Could there have been a little more “compartmentalisation” set wise to ensure the highlights in the score matched the action on stage? A bit more confusion and less exact choreography. Some sweat. blood and, look away now purists and families of Messers Forster and Crozier, some gratuitous swearing slipped in. A crew that really looked like they might eat the officers for breakfast. For sure.

On the other hand, in the literally overwhelming 34 chord sequence when Vere sentences Billy to death, in this production we stay with Billy and not Vere. And the three officers wordlessly damn him for hiding behind the legalese. Utterly brilliant. With that and other powerful memories I will happily take this production, until, hopefully, one comes along that really doesn’t hold back.

Ghosts at the Royal and Derngate review

Ghosts

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 2nd May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Lies Bleeding at the Print Room Coronet review **

Love Lies Bleeding

Print Room Coronet, 28th November 2018

You probably now Don DeLillo as the US author of provocative, existential contemporary fiction such as White Noise, Libra and Underworld. Well he also writes plays. Five of them to date apparently. IMHO he shouldn’t. They have been compared to Beckett and Pinter. They’re not.

The Print Room under AD Anda Winters has set itself up as a purveyor of knotty, off beat theatre with a pronounced literary bent. This puts it at the more challenging end of the London theatrical entertainment spectrum but then again who wants to watch Bat Out Of Hell every day (or any day come to think of it). When the USP delivers, The Outsider or Babette’s Feast come to mind, it can match the best that the London fringe can offer. When it tries a little too hard then it can turn into a long evening, even in the surprisingly comfortable seats of this shabby chic auditorium.

Love Lies Bleeding was firmly in the latter camp I am afraid. Alex Macklin (Joe McGann no less) is a craggy American land artist now in a persistent vegetative state after a second stroke. His son Sean (Jack Wilkinson) and second wife Toinette (Josie Lawrence) come to visit him and his fourth wife Lin (Clara Indrani) who is caring for him out in his desert hideaway. They discuss whether to accelerate his death. There are a couple of flashbacks with Alex pre-stroke. Oh and an extended metaphor about amaranthus caudatas for you biologists. That’s it.

Whilst it succeeds in its aim of getting us to reflect on the meaning of life, its worth, the question of how life should end, what constitute mercy and the like, we have so much time, even in the 80 minutes or so running time, to chew on these questions that, frankly, the case for killing him off early becomes overwhelming. Hard to fault the acting of the cast, the directing of Jack McNamara, an advocate for DeLillo’s plays (who was the hand behind The Fisherman at the Arcola, which was the polar opposite in terms of dramatic momentum), the inventive set of Lily Arnold and the video work of Andrezj Goulding. But these are paper thin characters in a plot devoid of narrative given to meandering reminiscing and repetitive philosophising. It kicks off with an interesting premise, Alex describing a corpse on the subway, but the play then disappears into its own (dark) metaphysical tunnel. Bleak, wordy, “comedy” so black it isn’t even funny,

Not for me then. Mind you I wouldn’t mind staying in a beach house designed by Lily Arnold. Just not with these people.