How difficult can it be to get to Kilburn? Very it would seem if you are the Tourist, this being the second time this year that he has missed the start of a matinee performance, (and having cut it perilously fine on another occasion). Message to self. Stop twatting about with the Overground and buses to get here and stick to the Jubilee.
Anyway it was a somewhat frustrating idea to watch the first scene of Wife on the tiny black and white stage telly, however accommodating the ever friendly front of house. Aussie Samuel Adamson’s latest play, (you may know him from The Light Princess musical at the NT of his Chekhov/Ibsen adaptations), is an intertwining affair which examines the relationships of four couples from 1959 to an imagined 2049. Ibsen is the stepping off point. Specially A Doll’s House, (there is a lot of Doll’s House inspiration coming up, see the Lyric Hammersmith, the Young Vic and International Theater Amsterdam).
After that scene and the infamous door slam, Wife opens with stiff-necked Robert (Joshua James) properly wound up after the performance, which he sees as an attack on the sanctity of marriage. His wife Daisy (Karen Fishwick), who dragged him along, doesn’t agree. She is in love with Nora the character and yearns for a similar freedom. Things ratchet up when we find out she is also in love with the actress, Suzannah (Sirine Saba) who plays Nora in the production. This is the scene I missed “live” but it was still plainly a compelling set up even if I couldn’t completely follow the subsequent ding-dong exchange of ideas and feelings between these three characters .
Next up 1988 and a couple of young gay men, with something of a class difference, the posh, volatile Ivar, (Joshua James again, named after one of Nora’s children), railing against the straight world, Thatcher and Section 28 and the younger, not-yet-out Eric (Calam Lynch) . They have retired to the pub after a Norwegian language version of the Doll’s House, and, after some exquisite verbal jousting, are joined by another Suzannah. On to 2019 and Clare (Karen Fishwick again) and Finn (the versatile Joshua James) who are at the Kiln Theatre bar (!) waiting for ….. well not the Suzannah who breezes in from the avowedly queer production of A Doll’s House being staged but Ivar, now 58 (Richard Cant, who also plays Peter in the first Doll’s House and the pub landlord in Scene 2), now bruised by life, and, after a while, his younger husband, bitchy actor Cas (Calam Lynch again). Clare and Ivar, as you pretty quickly surmise are connected.
And, in a final meta flourish, the finale is set in 2042, with an extract from a naturalistic play featuring Daisy, Robert, Suzannah and Marjorie (Pamela Hardman), a dresser. Now the whole point of this journey through time and coupledom is to show we are no closing to reconciling the struggle between the need to explore individual freedom, and the desire for equality, in domestic relationships, than Ibsen and his characters were in 1879.
In other hands this have could have become more than a little tricksy or worthy or muddled, but Mr Adamson pulls it off largely through the quality of his dialogue, they are some terrific lines and witty observations, and the way in which the cast it self has to shift pretty radically between the characters, even those that are linked by family ties, notably Joshua James (who has a knack of standing out in smaller roles in previous productions that the Tourist has enjoyed), Karen Fishwick (following her RSC stint, a fine Juliet, and Our Ladies from NT Scotland) and Calam Lynch (whose Claudio in the Rose Kingston’s Much Ado attracted disproportionate attention from LD, and not just for his acting talent). All three young actors served up really fine performances.
Of course it helped that Kiln AD Indhu Rubasingham took the chair herself lending customary energy to the production and papering over the cracks when words and actions pushed a little towards the artificial: these people don’t really do reflective silences. Richard Kent probably had more fun designing the costumes that the somewhat unremarkable set, as did Alexander Caplen with his sound contribution and Guy Hoare with lighting.
The proper reviews were, rightly, pretty positive overall. I have a very strong feeling that this will not be the last we see of this play.If so the Tourist will make damm sure he turns up on time.
The Pittsburgh (or Century) Cycle. Ten plays written by August Wilson (above) charting the African- American experience in the US in each decade of the C20. All bar one set in the same Pittsburgh Hill district, where August Wilson grew up. In the 1920s and 1930s this district was the hub of jazz culture. By the 1980s however, as the community was left behind and the planners, unsympathetically, moved in, Pittsburgh suffered the same fate as many other inner city areas in the US. The Cycle is not strictly chronological but is often connected. There were Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson. AW was inspired by, in his own words, blues music, the writing of Argentinian Jose Luis Borges, the African-American playwright Amiri Baraka and the African-American artist Romare Bearden, (most well know for his powerful work in collage).
So far the Tourist has seen this, Fences (with Lenny Henry as lead Troy Maxson) and the NT production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with its A list cast led by Sharon D Clarke. And I have Two Trains Running coming up at the Royal and Derngate with the others on the bucket list. From the experiences so far this are slow-burn, emotional, painstakingly constructed dramas which carefully scrutinise characters, showing the joys, frustrations and disappointments of their everyday lives. Very specific in terms of time, place and setting, but universal in terms of message. Political with a small “p”. Measured and naturalistic.
King Hedley II certainly take its time, clocking in at near 3 1/2 hours, and starts small ending on a more melodramatic scale, almost Chekovian. All the action takes place in the back yard of Ruby’s (Martina Laird) brownhouse on Pittsburgh Hill, and silence, or any non-naturalistic trickery, is not part of the gig. So you have to want to hear these people speak. Fortunately the words Mr Wilson puts into their mouths are powerful, real and compelling. Which gives the cast here, under the direction of Nadia Fall, plenty to get their acting teeth into. Ms Fall’s first season in charge at the TRSE has been a triumph. Her second season looks like it will be a repeat. A combination of home-grown and brought in productions that celebrate diversity, are relevant and, above all, are entertaining. The house is filling up and reaching out. That’s impressive.
Anyway King Henley II was probably the pick of the crop on last year’s announcement, (though I would suggest The Village, The Unreturning and Equus, which is transferring to Trafalgar Studios and deserves your attention, all turned out to be better), on the strength of Mr Wilson’s reputation, the generous support of Mr Wilson’s widow Constanaza Romero, and the casting of Lenny Henry. As I know from Fences, Othello and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, our Lenny is a magnetic stage presence and packs an emotional acting punch. In some ways he is almost too big a character. However here, in the role of Elmore, he takes something of, well I hesitate to call it a back seat, but he is not the linch-pin of the action. That role belongs to Aaron Pierre who plays the eponymous title character, and he is, properly, awesome.
Mr Pierre hails from Lewisham, where he went to the local college, before getting into LAMDA. His professional debut was as Cassio in last year’s Othello which marked Sir Mark Rylance’s return to the Globe. He’s done a bit of telly as well, (he will appear in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railway on Amazon), but this is this first stage lead. He will be a big star no doubt. And, just to be clear, he doesn’t play for Shrewsbury Town.
King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns to his childhood home after serving seven years for murder but is having difficulty adjusting back to life. He wants to provide for wife Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) and start a family but employment proves elusive, this being 1985 in Reagan’s America/ So he conjures up a plan with his upbeat best mate Mister (Dexter Flanders) to sell knock-off refrigerators to the local community. Once they have saved enough they will then set up a video store. The plan, you will not be surprised to learn, doesn’t come off. King Hedley and Tonya share the house with Ruby. Hedley’s mother, though the relationship between mother and son is fractured. Ruby left Hedley to pursue a singing career so that he was brought up by his aunt, whose house this was, and is angry that she has returned to claim the house after his aunt died. Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who is something of a fire and brimstone prophet, lives next door and, whilst we never see her, the death of Aunt Ester (“a washer of souls”), who appears in other plays in the Cycle, hangs heavy over the action. Many of the characters here first appear in Seven Guitars the play which premiered before KHII, in 1995, which is set in the 1940’s.
The opening act is not all doom and gloom, there’s plenty of bantz, but Hedley’s anger at the cards that life has dealt him, as he slouches in his chair in the yard, fiddles with his gun and tries to plant some seeds, is palpable. Into this volatile mix comes Elmore, Lenny Henry’s character, an ex-lover of Ruby and a hustler and chancer with a natty (if you like 70’s suits) dress sense. Hedley, as we find out, has good reason to resent Elmore and tensions build.
There are several strands to the story and Mr Wilson and Ms Fall are determined to give them all a fair hearing which does mean the play drags a little before it all comes together. The ending aims at tragedy but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the Greeks or Arthur Miller. Fate, male violence, the impact of the past on the present, the crushing of hope brought on by Reaganomics, individual responsibility, all are themes which are rehearsed in some often wordy monologues. Peter McKintosh’s set is a faithful retention of the brownstone terrace but there is little therefore to distract the eye. Howard Harrison’s lighting is a treat and there are a few, though maybe not enough, musical distractions, alongside Christopher Shutt’s electronic sound design.
Right finally a review that might conceivably be of some value to my solitary, loyal reader. Not that you should need me to tell you to go and see this. The proper critics and committed theatre bloggers will already have told you that. But I can heartily concur. Though I freely admit this is, in part, because I am awestruck by Hayley Attwell, who turns in an even better performance than she did in Measure for Measure at the Donmar, Labyrinth at Hampstead or The Pride at Trafalgar Studios.
Rosmersholm is apparently considered by many Ibsen aficionados to be his best play though it is rarely performed when compared to say, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck or The Master Builder. Now that normally just means it has some fatal flaw which the clever luvvies are prepared to forgive but which leaves us normal folk a bit nonplussed. Well, on the basis of this production, it is hard to see what has held it back from being as “popular” as Ibsen’s other works. The ethical, religious and political message is more pointed, the heroine, Rebecca West, more “contemporary”, the hero, Rosmer, more conflicted, the plot more transparent and the message more “relevant”, (though you should always be wary of people who vest past dramatists with “uncanny foresight” – it is human behaviour that doesn’t change). If you like your Ibsen social critique raw and bloody, and characterisation that doesn’t fanny around with dainty nuance, then this will be right up your street.
I have seen some reviews that imply that director Ian Rickson takes his time here. Nonsense. As in his other, superb, productions recently, Translations, The Birthday Party and The Goat, and his work with Jez Butterworth, he doesn’t feel the need to display any directorial excess, simply concentrating on forensically letting his actors breathe life into the text. Now of course I cannot be sure if the adaptor here, Duncan MacMillan, has taken liberties with Ibsen’s intent, never having seen the play before, (and having fallen behind, actually having never left the starting gate, with my Danish). If he has then good on him. It works. There is a bit of maladroit symbolism on show, a vision of a white horse which first appeared after Rosmer’s wife, Beata, committed suicide a year earlier by throwing herself into the waterwheel, but this no less grating than what’s served up in Lady From The Sea, Little Eyolf or, in the closest parallel, Ghosts. Oh, and there is of course, this being Ibsen, apparently some unintentional incest.
It is true that there is no escaping the melodrama of the conclusion, as the burden of guilt for the central couple becomes to much to bear, but frankly I want to be emotionally manipulated by great drama. There is a reason why the Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Miller still punch in the gut and it isn’t located in cosy domesticity. Of course it is hard to believe that in the space of 10 minutes Rebecca and Rosmer make their pact but it is not as if the two of them have been hiding their emotional dissonance up until then. Oh, and there is, of course apparently some unintentional incest. So even if deep-rooted shame is something few of us in 2019 might recognise, (look to our political class for confirmation), it doesn’t require too much of a leap of imagination to believe it of Norway in 1886.
I can also see why some might not take to Tom Burke’s “actorly” portrayal of John Rosmer. Mr Burke has a particular intonation and delivery, (last see by us in Schiller’s Don Carlos), which doesn’t always ring true but it does make his character’s intellectual life explicit. You make not entirely accept what Rosmer is feeling here, especially when it comes to his guilt about Beata, but you certainly now what he is thinking. Set against Ms Attwell’s restless, impulsive Rebecca, whose “freedom” almost overwhelms her, and Giles Terera’s inflexible, but oh so reasonable, brother-in-law Andreas Kroll, his anguished, grieving Rosmer soon makes sense.
The tension between the Rosmer’s heritage as a rich aristo at the heart of local society who has lost his clerical mojo and the progressive leanings fuelled by Rebecca, and by Jake Fairbrother’s cynical reformist journo Peter Mortensgaard, all set around local elections, is pummelled to a pulp by Ibsen, MacMillan and cast, but that is what gives the arguments universality. The way in which values inform political positions, the way in which the press turns ugly and fans the flames, the struggle between engagement or withdrawal, (here taken to its ultimate, Romantic, conclusion). Lay on top the clarion feminist call that Rebecca represents, the doomed passion that follows Rebecca and Rosmer’s meeting of the minds and the dissolution of Peter’s Wright’s knackered Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer’s ex-teacher, the hypocritical foil to the buttoned up Kroll, and you have the full Ibsen package of contradiction.
Rae Smith has conjured up another elegant set. Much like Mike Britton’s construction for the Royal and Derngate’s Ghosts which the Tourist relished a few days earlier, authenticity was key, but here the faded grandeur of a long unused reception room in Rosmer’s ancestral pile was imagined. Lined with ancestral portraits which Rebecca instructs the staff to reveal from under dust covers at the opening, the new broom, (apparently the original text calls for Rebecca to sit in a chair knitting before the first line). Later on, just to make sure we haven’t missed them, Rosmer chucks flowers at his forebears. Neil Austin’s lighting design takes full advantage of the possibilities of the setting, as does Gregory Clarke’s sound. The servants are omni-present reminding Rosmer of his position and creating swish scene changes but only the pithy housekeeper Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers) gets to chip in with dialogue. And big respect to whoever signed off the health and safety papers for the aqueous resolution.
As with Ghosts as I was leaving I overheard some punters saying that they liked the actors but that it was a bit “word-y”. I am going to say this fully aware of just what a patronising c*nt it makes me sound like but …. it is not just about whether you recognise the cast from the telly and …. it is a play …. it is supposed to be “word-y”.
I am still tiptoeing my way into Strindberg. A long history of ignoring him after an early dismissal many years ago was corrected with the companion piece to this, a version of Miss Julie, also translated by Howard Brenton, also directed by JST AD Tom Littler and also co-produced with The Theatre By The Lake which seems to serve the good people of Cumbria very well and probably needs a visit. There was also Polly Stenham’s version, simply Julie, in 2018 at the NT, a variation on her usual style. Neither were completely convincing, the former because of the play, the latter because of the production, but I recognise there is food for thought here, though far less than with Ibsen and Chekhov where I am now properly in the swing after some similar false starts many years ago.
It’s the underlying misogyny, even when old August may well be confronting it, and the violent swings in emotion which seem to be more necessitated by plot than character, which put me off. That is not to say that the grumpy Swede had nothing to say about the nastier side of love and passion just that the way he tackles it feels artificial to me. Now I know. It’s theatre. It isn’t real and doesn’t have to look like. Except that this is intended to be naturalistic and, like his contemporaries, offer an insight into the human condition, and specifically that thing that gets bound up in the phrase “love/hate relationship” or, more lazily I think, “the battle of the sexes”.
Mind you I have to say that this Creditors was a more engaging experience than Miss Julie. Maybe I am getting better at this theatre viewing lark, which would be heartening given the time and money invested, or maybe the way in which Creditors approaches the three way romantic tussle, here MFM rather than FMF, was more “relatable” (ugly word) to me, though I hasten to add I have never been caught up in such a scenario. The benefit, (or maybe curse), of being dull and painfully inept when it comes to matters of the heart.
What it can’t be, obviously is the creative approach. Like I say its the same team. Even down to the set where Louie Whitemore employs the same basic structure to create the seaside hotel reception room in which the sensitive, would-be artist, Adolf is convalescing with his fervent wife Tekla, that she employed to create the Scandi period kitchen for Miss Julie. Maybe the cast here was a little more to my taste though it is the same James Sheldon playing Adolf here in Creditors as the sexy servant Jean in the Miss Julie. I have a lot of time for Dorothea Myer-Bennett most of whose recent performances I have seen (Rosenbaum’s Rescue, Holy Sh*t, The Lottery of Love, The Philanderer) and she always stands out even if the play isn’t entirely convincing. Here she captured Tekla’s independent spirit, her devotion to Adolf and her still unresolved passion for the third character in this conflicted trinity, Gustaf.
He was played by David Sturzaker, another very fine theatre actor as it was my pleasure to discover recently in the multiple parts he mastered in the RSC’s excellent Tamburlaine. Here he shows how Gustaf’s insistent charm first cast doubts in Adolf’s mind about Tekla’s history, fidelity and ambition and then, as it is revealed that his presence in the hotel is no coincidence, he attempts to “win back” his ex-wife whilst Adolf eavesdrops from the room next door. These two scenes sandwich that between Tesla and Adolf where Adolf’s suspicions are angrily voiced despite her attempts to reassure.
Pretty straightforward huh and maybe not an especially original subject for drama you might think. But it is the way that Strindberg explores the motives and psychologies of his three protagonists, and the the way their emotional ambiguity is expressed, that turns it into something compelling. Why is Adolf so weak and open to persuasion? Tekla has expanded his artistic horizons and the marriage has been happy so why does he fall so easily for Gustaf’s Iago-like duplicity? She is intelligent, educated, sophisticated and worldly so why just WTF is Adolf’s beef? What is driving Gustaf to wreak this emotional havoc? Revenge, love for Tesla, wounded pride at the way Tekla, thinly disguised, ridiculed him in her autobiographical novel, toxic masculinity? Are Adolf and Tekla hiding something about their own history? Who is dependent on whom? Is Tekla still attracted to Gustaf’s “stronger” character? Is this just a game for Gustaf? Why the melodramatic ending?
Howard Brenton, like so many theatre types, is fascinated by the interiority, (yep it’s a real word), questions that Strindberg poses. As he is with other literary greats – see my forthcoming attempt to pick the bones of his latest play Jude inspired by Hardy (and, somewhat bizarrely, Euripides). As with Miss Julie this seemed, at least to this novice, an admirably forthright adaptation but then I know no better. It certainly, like the Miss Julie, serves up contemporary dialogue and caustic humour to set against the period setting and it comes in at a crisp 80 minutes or so. Same goes for Tom Littler’s direction and the unfussy lighting of Johanna Town and sound of Max Pappenheim. Howard Brenton has written a play, The Blinding Light, about Strindberg’s drift into madness, his “Inferno” period, which was directed by Tom Littler, and they have also combined for AS’s dances of Death, so you have to think they know what they are about here. So I am guessing this is about as good as it gets when it comes to modern interpretations of our August. Especially in the very intimate surroundings of the JST.
There is a lot more to Strindberg than the early, naturalistic plays which deal with that are most often performed. There are the the later more ambitious, symbolist works (A Dream Play, Ghost Sonata and The Dance of Death). Various history plays. Theatre director and producer. Novels. Poems. Essays. Scientific investigations. Painting, (his symbolist landscapes, example above, tick the boxes for the Tourist). Also dabbled in theosophy, though this was very trendy in fin de siecle artistic circles, occultism and alchemy. Not surprising he went a bit bonkers. A social/anarchist with a strong antipathy for all forms of authority but also an anti-semite. A campaigner for women’s rights who helped transform the role of women in drama who was also an ugly misogynist in print and whose wives where decades younger than him.
When you read about his him, his plays and his place in Swedish culture it is easy to see whay he holds such an important place in world drama. Am I persuaded? I’ll let you know in a few more years, and after a few more productions.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.
Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.
But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.
Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.
Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.
Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura,rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.
Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.
Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.
Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.
The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.
It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.
Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.
However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.
I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.
And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.
Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.
The Tourist never had a great deal of confidence in his ability in his chosen career. Unfortunate in a world where self-belief is everything, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was misplaced. Still many of those he had cause to interact with seemed to disagree for which he is eternally grateful.
I would be surprised if Tom Hiddleston has this problem. With good reason. He is a mighty fine actor. And I think he knows it. And he is a gorgeous looking fella. And I see he went out with Susannah Fielding, herself a brilliant stage actor, to wit her turns in American Psycho, The Merchant of Venice, The Beaux Stratagem and Bull, and, most recently giving Steve Coogan lessons in comic timing in the uneven, though still often brilliant, This Time with Alan Partridge.
Until now I had only seen TH on stage in Cheek By Jowl’s The Changeling years ago, missing his award winning outings in Cymbeline, Othello, Coriolanus and the limited edition RADA Hamlet. And since I can’t be doing with all that super-hero gibberish the only film I know him from is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, which is the very definition of pretentious, art-house cinema. Obviously I quite liked it. So it is his TV roles in Wallander, The Hollow Crown and The Night Manager which I know best. He shines. And it is not like he isn’t up against some pretty stiff competition here.
So we come to Betrayal, the conclusion of Jamie Lloyd’s stupendous Pinter season. At first glance taking the role of the cuckold publisher Robert, rather than literary agent Jerry, his mate who has the affair with his wife Emma, seems a surprising decision. Yet he doesn’t even have to open his mouth, just lurking at the back of Soutra Gilmour’s revolve set, for this to immediately make sense. I have said before that there have been a handful of actors in this season who just seem get Harold Pinter’s language. By which I mean they turn it into something natural whilst still retaining that rhythm, whether it is passive or aggressive, that makes it unique to him. Tamsin Greig, Rupert Graves, Al Weaver, Brid Brennan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Danny Dyer, John Heffernan, Ron Cook. Not always who you might expect but these where the ones who nailed it. To which we can now add Tom H. But Mr H also captures an inner emotional rhythm which makes him very, very special.
It helps that Betrayal, beyond its “going back in time” conceit, is one of HP’s least tricksy plays, indeed it can almost be delivered as the kind of naturalistic melodramas that HP first appeared in as an actor. And that Charlie Cox, an actor whose work is entirely new to me, and Zawe Ashton, who I remember from Jamie Lloyd’s persuasive, if sometimes wayward, production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studios, are similarly impressive. And that Jamie Lloyd has pretty much turned himself into the best director of HP since HP himself, (The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios still ranks as his best). I expect a definitive Caretaker to appear in the not too distinct future given the box office success here.
Betrayal, as I am sure you know, first appeared in 1978, with the affair which it dramatises beginning in 1968 when the play ends, and ending in 1977 when the play begins, with scenes from 1975, 1974, 1971, and proceeding chronologically within the other pivotal year of 1973. I am sure you also know that it is loosely based on HP’s own affair in the 1960’s with TV presenter Joan Bakewell. HP was simultaneously working on his great, unfinished, paean to Proust, a very clear influence. The structure means we already know the what, so that HP can focus on the how, and, especially get to the core of the deceptions to learn the why, of the betrayals. With the sparse plain set, few props and having all three actors always on stage the tripartite relationship is emphasised. What they know and don’t know. What they hide from each other and from themselves. The hurt they cause each other. The victories, defeats and compromises, for there is calculation here entwined with the passions. The key moments, the memories, of the affair, the marriage and the friendship, leap out with uncanny resonance from Mr Lloyd’s minimalist treatment. Robert’s attempts to intimidate Jerry in the restaurant scene and the pain when he finds out on the holiday in Venice, the best single scene of this entire season. Jerry’s needy, self-centredness. Emma’s ill-fated desire for both men. The dependence of the men on each other and on Emma. The truculence of the end of the affair the as mundane mechanics of break up are thrashed out.
As in the rest of the season Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham brother’s sound is impeccably delivered. Yet if I had to pick one thing that elevated this Betrayal into something very, very special it is the on stage movement of the three actors – the invisible link between them made visible. The silences are made part of the language and therefore the drama. That’s where Jamie Lloyd has the edge.
One example. The scene where TH is sitting on a chair cuddling Robert and Emma’s child. Whilst she and Jerry are languishing in bed on a stolen afternoon in the flat in Kilburn. Old TH managed to conjure up real tears in the Venice scene but this scene nearly had the Tourist blubbing. In Pinter. WTF.
What next for Tom Hiddleston. Other than the twenty fifth incarnation of this Loki bloke. I can’t wait.
To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.
Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).
Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.
Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.
The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.
Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.