The Plague at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Plague

Arcola Theatre, 27th April 2017

I booked this not knowing quite what to expect. I couldn’t really visualise how this was going to be staged but was intrigued at the idea. Well more fool me. Neil Bartlett and the cast have done a wonderful job in bringing Camus’s parable, written in 1947 after the Nazi “plague” that had engulfed Europe in the Second World War, to life. Given Mr Bartlett’s previous work I should probably have never doubted it would be a success.

Five of Camus witness characters, Dr Rieux (Sara Powell), Tarrou, an unspecified businessman/official (Martin Turner), Rambert, a journalist (Billy Postlethwaite), Gotthard, an unstable petty crook (Joe Alessi) and Grand, a widowed clerk (Burt Caesar) begin reciting their “objective” testimony through microphones in the manner of a Select Commttee appearance. This testimony is returned to throughout the 90 minute play, but is overtaken with “subjective” individual narratives that track the emergence of the mysterious plague, the reaction of the authorities, the quarantining of the unspecified city, the devastation wrought by the contagion and the eventual and surprising disappearance of the plague and the return to normality, a sort of triumph of good over evil.

With a non-naturalistic bare set (and just a handful of props), it is left to the words (and some deft lighting and sound), and the way in which they are delivered, (with some effective use of the actors combined in a chorus at key points), to very effectively conjure up the images (the death of the rats, the nature of the deaths, the increasing desperation and panic in the city, the failure of a serum, the attempted cover up by authorities, the arbitrary nature of the plague). It is not to hard to spot the influence of Mr Bartlett’s early days in Complicite.

So a very smart piece of work both in presenting the still relevant allegory of Camus’s novel and in creating a sense of unease and foreboding which resonants beyond the play itself. I purchased the text and a quick whizz through it shows just how clever Mr Bartlett has been in adapting the novel and concisely delivering a parable for our own times. I have a feeling that when I come to look back at this year’s theatre-going this will rank very highly. After all the most effective drama is that which sticks in your head, and this is already doing exactly that. It has deservedly sold out I think but worth keeping on the radar should it ever re-appear.

And a reminder. For £50 you can buy an Arcola passport which gets you 5 tickets. That is just bonkersly good value. A tenner per trip for work of the quality that is turned out here. Just buy one. Now.

 

Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 20th April 2017

So a day trip to the Ashmolean to take in this exhibition and a bit of the mighty Ashmolean’s permanent collection, (favourites include the Sickert room, the Medieval English collection and the Chinese ceramics and art). Well worth it since you ask.

So this loosely, and not entirely accurately, titled exhibition takes in highlights from the very fine collection of Ursula and R Stanley Johnson, from the Romantics and Neo Classicists of the early C19, through Impressionism and Post Impressionism,  and into the myriad of movements through the early C20, notably Cubism. It does a grand job in showing just how complex and exciting the evolution of Modernism was in France (largely Paris obviously) during those heady days. The collection, I gather,  was initially centred around drawings which feature especially in the first half of the exhibition, but in the second half we do get some lovely paint. Just goes to show what you can do if you send years studying art history, inherit a gallery from your dad and then deal your way to this.

There are plenty of examples of drawings from the top notch greats of the canon but what I found most interesting was the showcasing of many works from those who might not be considered household names, notably Juan Gris (three works here), Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Jacques Villon. Talking of Juan Gris if you quickly tire of the crush of schoolkids and tourists ticking off of Guernica in the Reina Sofia wander off to Room 208 – a collection of stunners by Gris.

Now I can take or leave all the Romantic and Neo Classicist stuff, actually no I can leave it, with Ingres and Gericault in particular a complete mystery to me. There is however a fine JL David drawing (Old Man and Young Woman) once owned by a Mr Henry Moore apparently. So I only really started to pay attention at the Manets, in particular the lithograph here taken from the Berthe Morisot portrait in the Musee D’Orsay and the delicious watercolour of a Mirabelle Plum. Degas drawings are then given an extensive workout (I am sorry I just can’t get too excited about these) before we get to some wonderful Cezanne drawings with the Study of Pine Trees the most remarkable to my eyes. Manet and Cezanne – to this day I wonder why it took me so long to get it. There is also a Portrait of Doctor Gachet which apparently is Van Gogh’s only etching – great stuff.

From here it is the Picassos and Legers which I guess will wow the punters but I was drawn to Jacques Villon, the brother oF Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp Villon, and his contemporaries, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. All three were part of the Puteaux group whose key exhibition was in 1912, the Salon of the Golden Section. In particular I would point to to Villon’s watercolour study Soldiers Marching, and the oil portrait and drawing of his father, to Jean Metzinger’s oils, The Yellow Feather and Landscape, and to Albert Gleizes’s Still Life, his landscapes and the Stravinsky portrait. For any of you, like me, who often finds themselves more admiring, rather than really enjoying, the cubism of Picasso and Braque, I think you will get a lot of aesthetic pleasure out of these particular works. I guess some might say they veer a little towards the decorative, (and some poncey critics won’t countenance them next to big Pablo), but there is an easy immediacy here and lots of lovely colour, so I am smitten. I had seen a smattering of works elsewhere by these three but paid insufficient attention. They are now firmly on the “actively seek out’ list. Apparently the Johnsons have a truckload of Golden Section artists. I would pay good money to see those.

So there you are. A wonderful collection, easy to take in, in a top notch institution. It was a bit busy when I went (same as the Fitzwilliam when I go) and it doesn’t have any late opening as far as I know but well worth a visit. Mind you only a week left – sorry.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter theatre review ****

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Harold Pinter Theatre, 19th April 2017

So I came quite late, as is my wont, to this particular party for one reason and another. There is still a month to go on the run though and this is definitely worth seeing. Though it still looks like you will have to pay an arm and a leg to get a decent stalls seat, and if you go for cheaper options upstairs, you risk losing an arm or a leg in this most uncomfortable theatre.

But it is very, very good. You know the story. Martha and George invite their new neighbour/colleague(s) back to their house after a boozy party and then all four keep drinking. And Martha and George kick seven bells our of each other verbally dragging their new “friends” into the carnage. Everything that is wrong with their lives, and the root causes thereof, pours out in a torrent of dextrous abuse which leaves them and us reeling. Marvellous, and cathartic, stuff.

Now all the reviews harp on about Imelda Staunton’s performance as Martha which is, to be fair, breathtaking – vicious, sexy, vulnerable, sometimes all in the same line. Yet I think the real star of the show is Conleth Hill as George. George and Martha are yoked together by their shared sorrow, fears and frustrations but to watch Mr Hill show this man of immense intelligence reduced to analysing his own vindictive barbs even as he delivers them is a masterclass of acting. Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots as guests/victims, Nick and Honey, are also superbly on point – it seems only the passage of time separates them from a fate comparable to George and Martha. And there is a reason why Caryl Churchill trusts her treasured texts with director James Macdonald – he knows when to just trust the writer, as he does here perfectly.

There are times I confess where, for the briefest of moments, I wish for a lighter tone/turn, just some salvation, to emerge, but then Mr Albee’s lines are just so delicious that you just keep on willing the slugfest on. As I think do George and Martha. Oh and I can’t really see all this state of the nation parallel stuff that others read into this.

George and Martha. Can’t live with em, can’t live without em. And a reminder to take it easy on the hard stuff.

Next up Mr Albee’s goat.

Consent at the National Theatre review *****

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Consent

Dorfman, National Theatre, 27th April 2017

Crikey. This is a very fine piece of theatre make no mistake. This was my first exposure to Nina Raine’s writing though I had been really looking forward to it based on what I had read about her previous works and on the proper reviews for this. But that didn’t prepare me for quite how strong a work this turned out to be.

The play explores complex issues of consent, empathy and justice in the context of rape. Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin) are new parents. Edward is a barrister as are their friends, couple Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James), and Tim (Pip Carter). They try to set up Tim with Zara (Daisy Haggard), Kitty’s actress friend, without success initially. Cue deft comic writing and unsettlingly direct discussions around the rape (and other) cases that the barristers are prosecuting/defending. We watch Jake and Rachel’s relationship flounder on his infidelity and then recover. Edward too has an affair so that Kitty seeks a sort of revenge through a relationship with Tim, who had been seeing Zara. The break up leads to a custody battle and Kitty seeking  to have Edward prosecuted for marital rape. Edward, perhaps, finally understands. Running through all of this is rape victim, Gayle (Heather Craney), who does not secure justice and, in consequence, takes her own life.

No apologies for laying out the plot but I think this is justified firstly, because the run at the Dorfman is nearly over and is sold out, secondly, because the above doesn’t even get close to capturing just how clever and multi layered this play is and thirdly, because no-one will read this anyway. We get to understand something of how the adversarial justice system works in Britain, notably the emphasis on rhetorical skill in driving the outcome. We see how the necessary fictions which lay behind this system, (such as innocent until proven guilty, the so called “cab rank”, cross examination and the admissibility of evidence), together with the driving need to “win”, leaves the barristers incapable of any empathy with the victims in rape cases. We see how the system fails rape victims and destroys lives. We see how frustration and infidelity sours one marriage and breaks another apart. We see how the need to create a “performance” in work can seep into the home and relationships.

Nina Raine’s writing is exquisite as these insights are layered into believable, but still nuanced characters, and the whole tragedy is leavened with real humour. There are some memorable touches: the play begins and ends with Kitty and Edward prosaically folding a sheet, the witty descriptions of Greek drama, the (I think) symbolism in the shifting positions of the sofas, the early reveals and later call-backs, the multiple lampshades/viewpoints of Hildegard Bechtler’s set.

The research that went into the play is palpable but never obvious or didactic, which given the subject matter is remarkable. The dialogue feels entirely natural and never forced. There are occasions when you can see the joins, when Kitty starts needling Edward at one of the get-togethers, when Gayle gate=crashes the party, when Zara reveals her pregnancy plans, but all are justified to move the stake up to the next level. Overall, the rational and emotional part of your brain will be given a massive workout. Roger Mitchell’s direction is perfect precisely because it lets the text and the actors get on with it.

Anna Maxwell Martin is properly awesome as she charts how Kitty’s need to make Edward understand what he has done becomes overwhelming. Ben Chaplin (who was captivating as the amoral fantasist in Apple Tree Yard on the telly) is also perfectly cast, as his egotistical smugness turns to desperate wheedling. I hope Adam James is not a complete misogynist bully in real life because he is brilliant at playing them (I remember his performance in Bull at the Young Vic). Daisy Haggard (who I only know from TV comedy Episodes where she creates comic genius from one expression) is terrific, as are the rest of the cast. Oh and hats off for the performance of Misha Wakefield Raine as Edward and Kitty’s baby.: nerveless.

So if this doesn’t get a run elsewhere I have absolutely no doubt it will be revived in the not too distant future given its extraordinary quality. And I cannot wait for Nina Raine’s next play which I understand will be … ta dah … a play about JS Bach starring Simon Russell Beale. And if I am not mistaken Mr SRB was viewing this very performance of Consent. I have no idea what on earth Ms Raine will do with this idea but I AM SALIVATING AT THE PROSPECT – repeat it is about the genius Bach starring the genius Simon Russell Beale.

Incident at Vichy at the Finborough Theatre review ****

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Incident at Vichy

Finborough Theatre, 16th April 2017

I haven’t see that many productions at the Finborough but what I have seen there has been uniformly excellent. This was no exception.

This is an Arthur Miller play which premiered in 1964 and was prompted in part by a visit with his third wife, Inge Morath, to Mauthausen concentration camp near Salzburg and to the trial of some Auschwitz guards. It focusses on a group of male characters who have been rounded up and detained by a local police offer and a German military officer in Vichy France and are awaiting an inspection by a German doctor. Most of the characters are Jewish and they begin to discuss what may be about to happen. As the true horror of their situation becomes clearer their fears, appeals to rationality, desperation, denialism and ultimately their true humanity is explored with Miller’s characteristic incisiveness and intelligence. How was/is this allowed to happen and who was/is complicit in letting it happen?

There is sufficient plot and development to keep the audience gripped and emotionally engaged but the play ultimately revolves around the themes that are explored by this very diverse range of character viewpoints. Director Phil Wilmott and colleagues wisely opted for a non-naturalistic white room set to highlight these themes and the tiny Finborough stage with audience piled up in front was ideal in conveying the increasing desperation of the characters.

Unfortunately this has been and gone but it would be a crying shame if London had to wait another 50 years (for that is how long it took) for this to reappear. But it does lend further credence to a couple of golden rules in theatre – firstly, if anything takes your fancy at the Finborough take the plunge, and secondly, always check out any production of an Arthur Miller play.

 

The Crucible at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Crucible

Richmond Theatre, 15th April 2017

So in the interests of full disclosure Arthur Miller’s Crucible is one of my favourite plays. I know it is not original, I know that it is not historically accurate (doh, it is a play, it doesn’t have to be), I know it is, like most of his work, slyly misogynistic (though here that may reflect the society in which it is set), I know it has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. But it is powerful allegory, it does illuminate the dangers of groupthink, scapegoating and the politics of hate, both in 1950’s America, and, probably whenever and wherever it has been revived, and it is a cracking story. So yah boo to you Miller haters.

So what does a good Crucible need? Well it does need space and time to get to the boil. In this production it felt like the fear of dragging on too much got to director and cast which meant for a bit of a breathless first act. Motives and jealousies need to be teased out and here there was a bit too much urgency to get through the lines. It also needs to create strong sexual attraction between Abigail and John P but still capture as much ambiguity in action as it can. It needs a constant and deep affection between John and Elizabeth P but there is still a lot wrong in this marriage. Largely I think the three actors playing Abigail (Lucy Keirl), Elizabeth (Victoria Yeates) and John (Eion Slattery) got this right. It needs a Reverend Parris (played by Cornelius Clarke) whose devotion to God and Mammon comes as a package, a Reverend Hale who ends up having his whole world view upended and a Judge Hathorne whose cognitive dissonance at the outcome of his prosecuting is plainly visible but who will not relent. Charlie Condou as Reverend Hale turned in a fine performance whilst Patrick Mackenzie as Hathorne was just a little less convincing.

Overall though this was a strong production. The set was a bit prosaic and greater use of light and sound might have offered a little more dramatic support but this is a great play that was done justice here. I gather this will tour to Brighton, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow so if it comes nearby definitely worth a look.

LS, whose business literally is drama, and LN, who tells it like it is, sometimes disconcertingly, enjoyed it. And perhaps even more enjoyed an impromptu meeting with our two Reverends and our John Proctor, as they wolfed down a pizza between matinee and evening performance, in the restaurant to which we had retired. As good a way as any to break the fourth wall I guess.

The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

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The Exterminating Angel

Royal Opera House, 24th April 2017

Without a shadow of a doubt the third act of Thomas Ades’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is the most powerful piece of musical theatre that I have ever seen. And it is up there with the best theatre I have ever seen. Oh and Acts 1 and 2 aren’t half bad either.

This is really, really good. There are times when the interplay of Mr Ades’s hugely inventive score, the excellent singing (to my ears) across the ensemble, the monumental set design and the brilliantly conceived lighting (and other visual trickery) left me open-mouthed in astonishment. I would say speechless, but clearly even this pleb knows that goes with the opera house territory. I was stuck up in the cheap seats, so goodness knows what it was like downstairs. If the characters were caught up in some sort of “enchantment” from which they could not seemingly escape and for which there was no rational explanation, well so was I.

The score is brilliant. I am no expert and so have no insight into the musical structures. The experts can walk you through that. But I can hear how Mr Ades’s magpie-like approach to the entire history of art music (and beyond that into the religious music which preceded it) creates a sound world which not just supports the drama but possesses it. I could hear Britten, Shostakovich (the menacing drum beat at the end of Act 1) and Nielsen, I could hear Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartok. There are plenty of more romantic tinges and Wagnerian blasts. There are strained Straussian (J whizzed up with R) waltz motifs which keep recurring. There are C12 songs and Jewish poetry. There is some jazzy, distorted piano, there is a bit of flamenco. And there is a glorious chaconne like structure as we move towards a resolution that isn’t really a resolution at the end. There’s is a constant swirl of sometimes lovely, if bitty, melody and big, hairy rhythmic dissonance. And plenty of percussion and low woodwind which is a good thing. Blimey it’s all there, but there is still a clear compositional voice at work here so it is not the dog’s breakfast that it might be in other hands. But subtle (with one or two rare exceptions) it ain’t – and that’s what I loved.

And then there is the eerie presence of the ondes martenot, signifying the unexplained Exterminating Angel. I am guessing this is a tricky customer to play (I have heard it in a Turangalila, but not sure who was playing, as well as in the hands of Jonny Greenwood in the live soundtrack to There Will Be Blood – that reminds me must get on to my top 10 films). Here, in the hands of Cynthia Millar, it was perfect. Not overly involved to avoid sounding like the soundtrack to a dodgy episode of Tales of the Unexpected, but enough to suggest an other-worldly take on events. The use of bells to conjure up deeper forces is also a winner. And the solo piano parts are inspired.

And there are arias of a sort. memorably for me from Audrey Lina’s coloratura Letitia at the end, (based on the C12 Jewish song), from Sally Matthews’s Silvia de Avila whilst cuddling a dead sheep (not a phrase you hear too often) and from countertenor Iestyn Davies as Francisco de Avila as he gets wound up about the size of spoons (I kid you not). And the duet from Eduardo (Ed Lyon) and Beatriz (Sophie Bevan) is spell binding. Oh yes and the chorals are overwhelming.

Now I admit that this score is not going to wash over you, and will likely put you on edge, but that is the point of the drama. Thomas Ades and his librettist, Tom Cairns, who is also the director here, and clearly a talented chap as well, have taken Bunuel’s enigmatic film and drawn out most of its essences. They have crunched down the number of characters but it is still a big crew. They turn up for the dinner party after the night at the opera (cue a few goodish gags), find themselves unable to leave for no clear reason, descend into a still sometimes polite savagery, then leave but don’t really escape. But why all this happens is unexplained. Bunuel famously couldn’t or wouldn’t explain it. Why should he? Ades and Cairns incorporate the surrealist absurdity (sheep, bear, creeping hand, gushing water), capture the empty decadent entitlement of its bourgeois protagonists and reveal the thin veil between society and anarchy. It maybe comes across as more mysterious and intense, rather than slyly comic and satirical when compared to the film, but this reflects the incorporation of music (there is no soundtrack in Bunuel’s art films) and the psychological insight into the characters offered through explanatory arias. That’s the point of opera after all.

it is another belter of a set from Hildegard Bechtler after her recent triumphs at the Almeida. She loves a bit of revolve but here we also get a gigantic arch which separates the deco-ish interior where the dinner party guests are “trapped” and the exterior world of hoi-polloi and authority. There is also a nice whiff of Goya for me in the visual effect from having a lot of people on stage a lot of the time and in the lighting colour palettes.

So all up this is outstanding. I don’t like most opera and wouldn’t willingly slash out 120 quid for a decent seat at Covent Garden. It isn’t a relaxed evening and you won’t come out humming. Whilst there is wild variety in the score, there is less in the pace and tone of the drama. Stuff doesn’t get resolved. It also probably helps if you have an eclectic musical taste. But if you want a sustained and heightened musical and theatrical experience, have the means and have a reasonable expectation about what you might be letting yourself in for, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Oh and make sure you pitch up to one of Mr Ades’s Beethoven symphony conducting stints at the Barbican with the Britten Sinfonia. This musical brain applied to the greatest music ever written. Sure fire winner.