The Gift at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ***

The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 8th February 2020

Another in the lengthening list of contemporary plays where the reach of ambition exceeds the grasp of execution. Janice Okoh has set her sights on “imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea” with her “outrageous” play set firstly, in Victorian Brighton in 1862, and then in a present-day village in Cheshire. It has some thought-provoking, and funny, dialogue and some arresting scenes, born of its formal invention (and doubling), but it doesn’t quite hang together and loses focus, and turns preachily didactic, after the first two acts.

In the first act Sarah Bonetta Davies played by newbie Shannon Hayes is a Yoruba princess, orphaned, enslaved, rescued and then “adopted”, as was her “fashion”, by Queen Victoria, and now about to return to her African “home”. She attempts to school her unrefined black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) in the etiquette of tea drinking before being join by Yoruba husband James (Dave Fishley), peremptory “aunt” Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), benevolent Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and social climber Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes). Interesting because Sarah Bonetta Davies was a real person (with a fascinating legacy) and interesting because of the way Janice Okoh uses this classic drawing play set up to explore her themes.

Then a switch to the tasteful front room in Cheshire where new white neighbours, artisan baker Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson), have come to visit black professional couple James (Dave Fishley) and our latter-day Sarah (Donna Berlin), armed with muffins. Tea, of every possible hue, is taken. Through a mix of misplaced good intentions and weakly concealed racism, the white couple’s woke-ish self-image unravels and they start digging and don’t stop, especially when it comes to the subject of James’s and Sarah’s adopted, white, daughter, Victoria. James and Sarah initially pass off the unconscious gaffes but, especially when Ben’s comments turn offensive, then push back, inducing the inevitable “well if that’s how you feel” wounded umbrage from Harriet and Ben. Ms Okoh absolutely nails this scene with laugh out loud satirical writing of the highest quality.

A powerful scene follows where modern Sarah, worn out from the casual bigotry, strips and walks off rear stage through a series of light box squares. Interval. And then the return for the tea party showdown between the oblivious Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and the furious Sarah BD. Great concept but tension has defused and Sarah’s arguments become too sustained. And Aggie reappears as some sort of time-lord oracle. Intentions are exemplary, but the structure becomes all too visible and the drama climaxes with a thud.

Though not for want of creative nous. Dawn Walton, who founded Eclipse Theatre, the co-producer of The Gift alongside the Belgrade Coventry, handles the detail of each act with surety, with Simon Kenny’s set, Johanna Town’s lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s sound, all chipping in, but even she can’t quite bring together each strand of the narrative. And the cast, especially Donna Berlin, (last seen by the Tourist at the Arcola in Great Apes – please give that beacon of East London culture, as well as this one here, some cash), plainly relish Janice Okoh’s dialogue.

I would still be very keen to see more of Ms Okoh’s work, particularly if she were to challenge the audience with “just” ideas and dialogue and not form as well. Nonetheless The Gift counts as another in the growing list of plays that Nadia Fell has programmed at the TRSE that talk up to its diverse audiences as well as entertain. They are coming back soon(ish) I hope. With a panto. We’ll need it.

Evgeny Kissin, Beethoven piano sonatas at the Barbican Hall review ***

Evgeny Kissin

Barbican Hall, 6th February 2020

Ludwig van Beethoven

  1. Piano Sonata No 8, Op 13 Pathétique
  2. 15 Variations and a Fugue, Op 35
  3. Piano Sonata No 17, Op 31 No 2 Tempest
  4. Piano Sonata No 21, Op 53 Waldstein
  5. Encore: various Bagatelles Op 126, Op 33, Variations Op 76 and Ecossaise WoO 86

A quick pat-down of the still unruly barnet, bounce up the steps and stride purposely across the stage to the single Steinway piano. Quick bow. No score obvs. Then straight into the sombre beauty of the Pathetique’s Grave introduction, before the dotty rush of the ensuing Allegro, the gorgeous Adagio chorale and then the closing Rondo repeats. Then the Eroica Variations which take that famous opening questioning, slightly arch, melody from the finale of the Third Symphony, and present a half hour of extraordinary variations (15) around it with closing fugue. The highlight for me. The Tempest, with uncertainty the key to the opening’s barrage of arpeggios and trills, the siren song of the Adagio and then the desperate, incessant waves of the closing Allegretto. Finally the Waldstein with the rolling exploration of the mysterious Allegro, the short, equally weird Adagio which never gets going before jumping into the closing Rondo which builds and builds and builds, a symphony dressed up as a sonata. Then more, and more, and more, encores with the Op 76 Variations in D major the standout.

He shuffled off in between, took the tumultuous applause with a few short bows, might have smiled a bit, but otherwise this was another day in the office for Evgeny Kissin. Except that his office is unlike yours. Or any one else’s for that matter. Including those rarefied few engaged in the same profession as him. We have come a long way from the child prodigy, wunderkind, genius, how the f*ck does he do that years, he’s now 47, but to see and hear the Russian-Brit-Israeli maestro is still a fascinating experience. He can do anything he wants with a piano and a score and he makes it look easy. But, as in previous encounters, I can find this a bit numbing. And, in Beethoven especially, in these perfect, middle-ish, sonatas, I think he still adds too much. I want the all of Beethoven’s invention, surprise, technique, but I want to get inside his patterns and structure. It is almost as if, in the cat and mouse of perfect performance, the Kissin cat is just too smart for the Beethoven mouse. Just too good. Mind you I suspect LvB, even in his head, may not of imagined quite what dynamics the modern piano machine can conjure up.

Weird thing to say I know. He is not mannered. Or indulgent. Textures are full but not weighty. He doesn’t add, or subtract. Tempi are overall right. It’s just there is just a little too much polish to the detail. The architecture and line is intact, but I just get overwhelmed by technique. The notes are perfect, the space between them less so.

Still no question I’ll be here next year assuming the programme is even moderately appealing, (not a given with his Romantic leanings), and that science and cooperation have vanquished politics and blame. To hear piano playing of this technical brilliance even if it doesn’t quite convince at the punch in the gut level is still one of life’s great privileges.

Mozart’s Final Flourish: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ivan Fischer (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2020

Mozart Symphonies Nos 39, 40 and 41

The OAE, like so many of its orchestral peers, is doing a remarkable job in bringing music to us in this troubling times. All with a solidly educational bent, befitting an ensemble which has followed its own path, keen to bring historically informed performance and repertoire, (and now much more), to as broad an audience as possible since it was founded in 1986. Take a look. And while you are at it see what the LSO, Berlin Phil, LPO, London Sinfonietta, Aurora Orchestra, Wigmore Hall and others are up to. Loads of archive, and even, socially distanced, recent, performances. Let me know what else you have found.

Oh and don’t get me started all on the opportunities to buff up on opera. Most of it isn’t for me but if you are keen on your Verdi, Puccini or Wagner, you are spoilt for choice. OperaVision, Marquee TV, the streams from the Met, the Royal Opera House, Vienna State Opera, as well as the Dutch National Opera, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, La Monnaie, Bayerische StaatsOper, Deutsche Oper Berlin and our own Garsington Opera. They may be more. So far my lockdown viewing has only extended as far as the Aldeburgh Peter Grimes on the Beach, the Glyndeboure Fairy Queen and the ROH Gloriana. And best of all the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra semi-staged trilogy under Sir John Eliot Gardiner from La Fenice. Spell binding.

Anyway from a purely music perspective then it’s hard to beat the Concertgebouw archive,, whether the Orchestra itself or the venue website. I am currently thoroughly enjoying the Beethoven symphony cycle with the venerable ensemble under the baton of guest conductor Ivan Fischer. Rich interpretations and even digitally mediated the vibrant sound of orchestra and venue is palpable.

Ivan Fischer also acts as one of the Principal Artist conductors for the OAE, (when he isn’t working with the ensemble he founded back in 1983, the Budapest Festival Orchestra). And here was a programme of the last three great Mozart symphonies played in one grand sweep, though with an invitation from the urbane Mr Fischer between movements, which the audience was happy to accept. There was an interval half way through No 40 but the idea, not altogether successful, was to highlight the links between symphonies and movements. Ivan Fischer picked up the notion of seeing and hearing the three symphonies as a whole came from his mentor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, so who am I to argue. All the interruptions however seemed to me to dispel rather than support the theory.

They were all written in quick succession in the summer of 1788, without a commission, at a time when, allegedly, Mozart was even more brassic than usual. The level of invention, even by Wolfgang’s high standards, is astounding, instrumentation pushed to its limits, and structurally they are all similarly orthodox, only hinting at the risks that LvB was to take less than a couple of decades later. The differences however are still profound. No 39 is more understated, often deceptively simple, but very satisfying, No 40, along with No 25 the only one of WAM’s symphonies in a minor key, dials up the Haydn-esque Sturm und Drang emotion, with No 41, Jupiter, in more heroic vein, straining at the leash of the possible whilst still, in the still gob-smacking finale, (however many times you hear it), echoing the contrapuntal wizardry of the past especially JSB.

The OAE and Mr Fischer created a perfectly agreeable interpretation of the works without them ever seeming to catch fire and there were a few issues with balance and dynamics, (the QEH suits this orchestra better than the RFH), with the woodwind seeming to recede. Having said that I recall this orchestra playing this repertoire in this space a few years ago under another guest conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. I don’t always get on with his gigs, but this one was a triumph.

What the Dolls Saw at the Vault Festival review ****

What the Dolls Saw

House of Macabre, Vault Festival, 5th February 2020

Off to the Vaults again, this time with the SO, to What the Dolls Saw from the all women House of Macabre company. It is a dark comedy, as one might have guessed, penned by Nic Lamont, who specialises in such things and plays Megan, one of three sisters who return to their childhood home for the funeral of their father.

Prissy Megan is a children’s author, though her stories, surprise, surprise, sport something of the night, spirited Christine (Holly Morgan) is an investigative journalist and Zara (Sasha Wilson) is currently between careers having returned from the US, with, a mute ward in the form of Belle (Rebecca O’Brien) who, as we shall see, is handy with puppets. Improbable I know but such is the nature of the genre. Mother Rose (Rosy Fordham) is fond of the sauce, reminisces about her life on stage when a child and lacks the maternal instinct. Aunt Lily, now no longer with us, brought up the girls, Dad was, drum roll please, a renowned doll-maker. The sisters decide to delve into their parents’ past and air their findings on Christine’s podcast. They find more than they bargained for.

Hopefully all this conjures up a house of horror vibe but all delivered in a sassy contemporary way. The Pit, with its pews, barrel-vaulted roof and musky scent is one of the Vaults more atmospheric venues, enhanced by the lighting design of Holly Ellis, the spooky set of Benjy Adams complete with doll displays and an original  sound design from Icelandic composer Odinn Orn Hilmarsson. The shadow puppetry of Rebecca O’Brien lends an air of cinematic Expressionism to the fairy tales based on Megan’s latest, rejected, children’s book.

If this was played straight it would have come off as a bit too much fan-girl amateurism. Fortunately, the ensemble have written the story, and perform it, for laughs. It isn’t overly arch however, genre clichés nurtured not scorned, the cast don’t mug inappropriately, and I think there are strands of real experience in the three quirky sisters’ lives. Which means when the story does turn properly Poe-ish, as the history comes out, it is surprisingly effective. It isn’t Ghost Stories jump-scarey, not is it League of Gentlemen twisty, but it is smart, and it is occasionally thrilling. For which director Lisa Millar deserves immense credit. OK so the tone sometimes wavers, and maybe the company have bitten off a little more than they can chew given obvious limitations, but this was still a very enjoyable way to spend an hour. The SO is a doyenne of the ghost story format, though is, as you know, notoriously hard to please, and The Pit seating did no favours to her, but it still passed muster.

This is a very talented writing and creative team and I, for one, would be very excited if they were given, say, a small screen commission to work with.

Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Faustus: That Damned Woman

Lyric Hammersmith, 5th February 2020

I bet Chris Bush was good at English at school and maybe beyond. In the precis question. For she has an unerring eye/ear/pen for taking complicated/contentious/convoluted issues and dramas and rendering them explicable, topical and entertaining. Kicking off with TONY! The Blair Musical from 2007, through a series of productions based and performed in her native Sheffield to her take on Pericles for the NT’s Public Arts project. I haven’t seen The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, the play that is, though would like to. The play that is …. Even a narcissistic cretin, who takes money for voicing offence, and who has choked and failed in her “career” on multiple occasions, deserves our sympathy, though not our attention.

Music and inclusiveness have formed central planks of CB’s work with Standing at the Sky’s Edge, co-written with Richard Hawley, set to grace the NT when normal service is reviewed. With Faustus TDW however she has chosen to contemporarise, (as she did with the mystery plays), and gender switch, the overly ambitious man about town and time, made famous by Marlowe and Goethe. With mixed results. It’s looks brilliant, there are some sound ideas beyond the gender inversion, and, for those of us new(ish) to the story, it is easy to follow, but some of the dialogue doesn’t quite match the ambition and it features a bold central performance from Jodie McNee which doesn’t help us to get beyond the cipher.

Johanna Faustus works hard alongside apothecary Dad (Barnaby Power) in plague-ridden 1660s London after Mum is executed for witchcraft. God isn’t going to dispense justice so our Johanna bites Lucifer’s (also Barnaby Power) hand off when he offers the deal. 144 years, 6x more than the male Faust, no requirement to be taken consecutively. Yet she, unlike her hubristic mythic counterpart, sets out on an altruistic path, first in her ‘hood and then, after a quick-fire Enlightenment education, a melodramatic Victorian London, through time, Cloud Atlas style, to a far future as CEO of a pharma company set on delivering eternal life to the masses. She meets various women (and some men) along the way, Elizabeth Garrett, Marie and Pierre Curie, variously played by Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles, Tim Samuels and Emmanuella Cole, and is accompanied by her camp Mephistopheles (Danny Lee-Wynter), decked out in a natty white suit, Cuban heels and rouge, and ever quip-ready.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set design may well be the star of the show, an expansive cavern, expressively lit by Richard Howell, like the inside of a whale, though it does come to dominate. There are a few enjoyable effects, notably in the recreation of the Seven Deadly Sins, assisted by Giles Thomas’s sound and Ian William Galloway’s video. Headlong director Caroline Byrne keeps things moving along, though this comes at the expense of the questions, of faith, of female agency and oppression, of mortality, technology, free-will, redemption, which themselves are rather jumbled up. Ambition and imagination has been a feature of the UK stage over the last few years, but Faustus TDW does, like some of its predecessors, push the envelope a little too far and risks looking a bit daft.

Mind you Marlowe’s anti-hero does drone on a bit, is an annoying clever dick and uses his expensively secured special powers to mostly make practical jokes and perform crowd-pleasing tricks. Which, to be fair, is probably what this bloke would do as well. On that basis we have to applaud the two CB’s for setting out an alternative. It just might have been better to restrict the inversion to the historical starting point. Still I enjoyed it and kind of liked its can-do punky attitude. A fine foil to the rather more technologically adroit achievement of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s adaptation of Orlando which Schaubuhne Berlin kindly streamed the other day. Perhaps I should have a look see at what the mainstream female time traveller in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is up to these days.

The Welkin at the National Theatre review ****

The Welkin

National Theatre Lyttleton, 4th February 2020

Rural Suffolk. 1759. A court case. There was only ever going to be one companion for the Tourist’s visit to see The Welkin. Step forward MS. A Tractor Boy by upbringing, if not birth, and an expert on all things legal and rural in the Medieval and Early Modern. Dad once again wells with pride as he writes these words.

Now admittedly this was a bit late for his practice and a little early for mine but the subject, a jury of 12 matrons mulling over the case of one Sally Poppy who may or may not be pregnant, the writer, Lucy Kirkwood no less, (NSFW, Chimerica, The Children, Mosquitoes on stage, and with Adult Material coming soon to Channel 4 and certain to rile the blue-rinses), director, James MacDonald, and a bravura all female, (well just about), cast, still had us very excited pre-game.

Natasha Cottriall (Whodunnit Unrehearsed), Jenny Galloway (The Starry Messenger), Haydn Gwynne (Coriolanus, Hedda Tesman), Zainab Hasan (Tamburlaine), Aysha Kala (An Adventure), Wendy Kweh (Top Girls, Describe the Night), Cecilia Noble (Faith, Hope and Charity, Downstate, Nine Night, The Amen Corner), Maxine Peake (Avalanche, Hamlet), Dawn Sievewright, June Watson (Uncle Vanya, John, Road, Escaped Alone, Good People), Hara Yannas (Amsterdam, Dealing With Clair, The Treatment, Oresteia), Brigid Zegeni (I’m Not Running, Twelfth Night) and Ria Zmitrowicz (The Doctor, Three Sisters, Gundog, X). What a line up. And the credits are just those I can testify too. At the risk of unwarranted favouritism, Cecilia Noble and Maxine Peake would be in my top 10 stage actresses if I had such a thing, and reading June Watson’s credits suggest she is literally incapable of backing a theatrical nag.

With this much acting talent on show there were instances when I thought that Lucy Kirkwood and the NT might be guilty of delighting us too much. Even with 2.5 hours running time, and an attempt at equitable distribution, some of the actors didn’t quite get the airtime to flesh out character. And Bunny Christie’s set, a grand Georgian municipal hall, with impressive, working, (in the sense of the Devil’s ingress in the first act’s concluding coup de theatre), fireplace, and Lee Curran’s bright lighting, created a clinical, painterly doll’s house effect which marooned many of the cast. I can see why the creatives wanted to restrict the furniture to a minimum, and, with the help of Imogen Knight’s movement, blocking was exemplary, but with a dozen or man bodies always on stage it did distract from the detail.

Mind you, prior to the main event, there were some stunning tableaux, as the women stepped out of a line to introduce themselves and, courtesy of a compartmentalised light-box, they performed their literal women’s work to the repetitive rhythm of Carolyn Downing’s sound design. (A nod to Kate Bush came later with a acapella Running Up That Hill; This Woman’s Work might also have hit the spot. After all you can never get enough of the greatest single musician of our age).

As did the funny accents. It was Suffolk and many of our matrons were of the middling, or lower, sort, even Haydn Gwynne’s apparent toff, but some were better at projecting beyond the activity than others.

Still minor quibbles. What mattered was the story, and the feminist message, and here I can report Ms Kirkwood and those charged with bringing this scale entertainment to life, played a blinder. Now there is no getting away from it. The Welkin is not a million miles away from Twelve Angry Men. Except that it involves a jury of women judging another woman in a time and place when such female agency was rare. And this, I was reliably informed by MS, was no flight of authorial fancy. “Matrons” were tasked with checking the veracity of claims to pregnancy from medieval times through to the early C19, and you smart people will no doubt recall the “offer” to Elizabeth Proctor to avoid the noose whilst she was pregnant. The Twelve Angry Men parallel continues into the device of having one woman, Maxine Peake’s Elizabeth Luke, as the Henry Fonda sympathetic voice of reason/conscience, entreating her peers, who, initially at least, have very different, and largely disdainful, views on Sally Poppy’s guilt and fidelity.

However the reasons for Elizabeth’s Luke’s persuasions, in a twist that is just about concealed for long enough, turn the play into something more than a commentary on justice and fairness. The perspectives of the matrons, the methods by which they assess Sally, their arguments and conversations, and especially the way in which, eventually, a man, Doctor Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams who also plays Sally’s grudgeful husband and the Justice), and his callous technology, is called upon to decide, all point up women’s experience and biology in a patriarchal world, then, and, by implication, now. And to cap it all there is nothing remotely sympathetic about Sally Poppy herself, guilty of infanticide according to her cuckolded husband, though she is still a victim of male power, (and, in a shocking conclusion, of class, even in death). Which allows Ria Zmitrowicz to go full-on stroppy in her portrayal which she is, based on recent turns at the Almeida, very, very good at.

There is plenty of humour, (much of it at the expense of Philip McGinley’s steward Mr Coombes), and poignancy in the dialogue and in the woman’s stories, and pacing in the disclosure to keep us on our toes, even if the set-up itself is, as I said earlier, somewhat static with words superseding action. Ms Kirkwood’s scholarship is never self-serving, and exposition, whilst not entirely mixed in to plot, doesn’t irk. This was a time when Enlightenment was supposed to banish superstition, specifically here witchcraft, the year of Halley’s comet, all of which LK explores in the women’s exchanges.

The wider message is how the justice system serves women differently. Until 1920, outside of this special case, women could not sit of juries or be judges. Women weren’t considered “capable” of administering justice. Crimes against women were ignored. Even now supposed promiscuity and culpability still colours the judgements of men, and other women, in rape cases. Women commit very little crime, but are often judged more harshly when they do.

An important play then with more to chew on even if it didn’t quite deliver the tense narrative it promised. Lucy Kirkwood and her collaborators were probably more concerned with the context around these women’s stories rather than the story itself and with delivering a production of exemplary quality, and event if you will, rather than pinning us back in our seats. For the cerebral MS and his Dad keen to fake knowledge, this was just the ticket but I can see why some reviewers found it just a little intellectually over-stuffed. It couldn’t match the economy or bite of Caryl Churchill but Lucy Kirkwood is edging closer to the godhead, in ambition if not quite execution.

Beckett Trilogy at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****(and some other at-home Beckett stuff)

Beckett Trilogy: Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune

Jermyn Street Theatre, 4th February 2020

Fragments: Beckett by Brook – Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither , Come and Go – VIMEO, Bouffes du Nord – 26th March 2020

Endgame/Rough for Theatre II – Digital Theatre, Old Vic – 9th April 2020

Having put in countless theatre hours over the last few years the Tourist feels ready to get to grips with another of the “writers who changed theatre” in the form of one Samuel Beckett. Anyone with a passing interest in culture generally, and theatre particularly, is going to have encountered the great Irishman, but, to the uninitiated like me his reputation is fearsome. Still no time like the present.

Especially when the equally fearsome Peter Brooke, similarly ascetic and similarly a Parisian expat, has kindly posted up a recording of his (and Marie-Helene Estienne’s) production of Fragments: Beckett by Brook from the Bouffes du Nord in 2018 (and last in London in 2008). I have had a couple of cracks at Mr Brooke and Ms Estienne’s oeuvre with mixed success, Battlefield at the Young Vic, their take on The Mahabharata, and The Prisoner at the NT, both works of elongated, and exacting, beauty. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Beckett, Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go, performed by, drum roll please, Kathryn Hunter, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Jacques Lecoq alumni, and all round stage acting royalty, especially when it comes to the tough, avant garde-y stuff.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Beckett, in addition to posing questions about language, memory, purpose, mortality, despair, isolation, confinement, observation, connection, indeed, the whole futility, with tenacity, of human existence and nature-of-the-self gig, liked a laugh, especially of the mordant, and/or gallows absurd, kind. Which is what PB and the three actors mine in Fragments. It isn’t too much of a leap from this to Python. Honestly. Of course it helps that Belgian actor Jos Houben is peerless as a physical comedy theatre actor, that Kathryn Hunter is the very definition of “shape-shifter”, (whatever you do do not miss an opportunity to see her on stage, most recently in the RSC Timon of Athens), and that Marcello Magni was a founder member of Complicite, (the other two are regular collaborators), about as innovative a theatre company as it gets. Oh, and he was also the voice of Pingu.

Rough for Theatre I is probably the trickiest customer on the bill. A blind beggar, busking on his fiddle, teams up with another chap who has lost a leg. Both reference past lovers/carers/family. They might be abandoned. They search for food. Mutual support turns to annoyance and, maybe, violence. A lot of the classic Beckett stuff is on show, a couple of cranky fellas bound in uneasy interdependence. But it doesn’t quite persuade and turns into a long, old 20 minutes.

Rockaby, with the archetypal old woman, W, in a rocking chair, the ghostly vibe, the simple, pre-recorded, dimeter verse echoing a lullaby, the hypnotic stresses and repetitions, (each of the four sections begins with “more”), the gradual withdrawal of W from the world, and her eventual death, is a work that most definitely does work. Especially in the hands, and eyes, and mouth, of Kathryn Hunter. There isn’t much here to express, but express she does, packing all manner of emotion into less than 10 minutes. Fuck life as W says. But do it gently.

Act Without Words II, like its companion piece, and the likes of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape was written ion the 1950s, but unlike them it is a mime piece. Two fellas, of course, emerge consecutively from sacks on stage after being prodded by a large pole, before engaging in their, presumably daily, routines. One is chaotic, a hypochondriac, the other fastidious, a clock-watcher. A recipe for audience bemusement? You might think so from the sound of it, but, in the hands of Messrs Houten and Magni, it is hilarious, Laurel and Hardy-esque, one of the funniest things I have seen on stage. With Rockaby and now this I think I can see the attraction of Beckett.

And Come and Go only added to the attraction. Three middle-aged women, Flo, Vi and Ru, friends since childhood, Houten and Magni decked out with coats, hats and a bit of rouge, sit on a bench, natter, and then, as each moves away in turn, a whispered secret something is exchanged between the remaining pair. At the end they link hands in the “old way”, a Celtic knot. I can imagine this scenario might come across as foreboding, a reference to incipient illness or death, we don’t actually hear the secrets, but in this production it is comic, the whispers more gossipy or bitching. More Cissie and Ada (google it) than “staring into the void”. After all we all like to chide our friends behind their backs with our other friends in the guise of concern.

Neither is a poem of sorts, just 87 words, in ten lines, with apparently just 3 commas. That’s minimalism for you. It is some kind of dialectical journey, maybe to death, who knows. Kathryn Hunter can’t make its meaning clear but blimey does she make every word count.

All in all then highly recommended (it’s still on Vimeo). How all the little tragi-comic stuff can shed a light on all the big stuff which rattles around in our heads. Not, as Peter Brooke says, wall to wall despair and pessimism as Beckett reputation dictates. And showing how the best actors can reveal, even to the dubious like the Tourist, that there is more to Beckett than initially meets the eye, and ear.

On to Endgame. Or to be more precise Rough for Theatre I and then Endgame. From the Old Vic. Now my scheduled performance was a casualty of you know what but the nice people at the Old Vic offered up a filmed version of the production which I snapped up. Now, before the interruption, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, had ensured brisk business for something relatively challenging judging by the wait it took me to secure my favourite perch. For Endgame, Fin de partie in the original French, (the language Beckett always initially used), does jog on a bit coming in at 80 minutes. It is bracketed up there with the likes of Waiting for Godot in the Beckett canon, and, whilst the critics response to the production was decidedly mixed, there was enough to make me gently expectant.

I have to say didn’t really get on with it though. Whether this was down to play or to performance, it is difficult to say. Having now see what PR and M-HE could do with Beckett in Fragments, (and, as you will see below, what Trevor Nunn was able to serve up in his Beckett trilogy), I think the director, here Richard Jones, might have been culpable. True the director’s freedom to interpret is proscribed by the still vice-like grip exerted by the Beckett estate, demanding compliance with the great man’s stage directions, and by the stripping away of realist anchors, the lack of plot, the minimalist aesthetic and so on. Even so I still think the thematic repetition, this really is about four troubled souls going round in circles, and the skill of certain the actors, left Mr Jones only really scratching the surface.

Alan Cumming played Hamm, confined to a chair, (with a rather distracting pair of fake stick-thin beanie legs on permanent display), with a splenetic camp which at first amused but soon curdled. And Daniel Radcliffe, who to his credit, seeks out acting challenges in an almost penitent way since the screen Potter juggernaut was wound up, is similarly one-dimensional as restless servant/foundling Clov. I am afraid he does’t really seem to get with the profundity, opting for a superficial humour in word and deed. The two don’t feel that they have spent an eternity locked together. Contrast this with Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks, (with facial prosthetics which really do convince), as Magg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, living in wheelie bins downstage left. Much less to say, but by not trying to grasp for comedy that isn’t there, both convey far more .

In order to get under the surface of “life is absurd”, and “in the midst of death we are in life”, (or maybe it’s the other way round), I think I can see that creatives need to delve a bit deeper. If all we see is the outward character, like a realist play, here Hamm as childish despot “actor” doing a turn primarily for himself, or Clov as mild-mannered extra from the Ministry of Silly Walks, it just become too much hard work to listen to what Beckett was saying. I am guessing the existential bitterness at the core of Endgame really is the deal but having the confidence to see that through feels like a big ask. As Hamm says “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” but only I guess if you don’t try too hard to make it too funny in the first place. I will need to try again with the play to test the theory or to accept that it could just be that I simply don’t have the patience to see it through in which case, mea culpa.

As it happens I preferred Rough for Theatre II. Two bureaucrats, Bertrand and Morvan, are in a room assessing the evidence as to whether would be suicide Croker, (Jackson Milner standing stock still for half an hour with his back to us – bravo fella), should jump or not. There is a contrast between the two, Cumming’s Bertrand is sweary, impulsive, keen to crack on, Radcliffe’s Morvan, more measured, though indecisive. The scenario is milked for gags as it echoes the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death from the 1940s. Croker might have been rejected, he might be ill, he might be a tortured artist. The comments of the various witnesses from Croker’s life are mostly banal, only occasionally poignant or profound. The banter between B and V edges towards Shakespearean wordplay, as well as the more visible vaudeville. The end is ambiguous. It could be Pinter, which is probably why I much preferred it

Right finally to the Jermyn Street trilogy. Sorry that took so long but this is how I learn. Firstly the intimacy of the JST served these plays very well especially Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe. Secondly the cast. David Threlfall, James Hayes, Niall Buggy and, even if in voice only, Lisa Dwan have the measure of Beckett. It is rare to see Lisa Dwan’s name in print without the words “foremost Beckett interpreter/scholar” appended, (Not I, the one with the mouth, is her particular Beckett party piece), though she has plenty of other heavyweight acting credits to her name in Ireland and elsewhere, as does fellow Irish actor Niall Buggy. David Threlfall is just an all round top geezer, last seen on stage as the RSC Don Quixote, who has played Beckett on screen, albeit in the hit and miss comedy series Urban Myths. James Hayes has been treading the boards for as long as the Tourist has been mortal, and collaborated with Trevor Nunn at the JST in radio play All That Fall in 2012 with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

Understandably the Beckett estate rates Trevor Nunn, now 80. He is, after all, pretty much the Father of the House when it comes to theatre direction. Unlike Richard Jones whose USP is showy, scatter-gun, (though often brilliant), opera. Max Pappenheim is able to conjure up a sound design with real impact in a space he knows well and I assume David Howe, normally to be found lighting up the West End, said yes straight away when he got the Nunn call. The monochrome world, specified for Krapp’s Last Tape, persists throughout. Old age and memory is what links the three works. What four old men remember and what they forget.

Krapp’s Last Tape, from 1958, the year after Endgame, was big draw here, with James Hayes, literally, in the chair. Krapp on his 69th birthday, and sporting a natty pair of snakeskin shoes, sets out to make a tape (reel-to-reel kids, ask Grandad, though make sure it is by phone) documenting the last year and to review a similar tape he made when he was 39, made after he had returned from celebrating that birthday in the pub. This tape mocks the commentary of another tape he made in his mid twenties. He is more interested in the definition of the word “viduity” than the death of his mother. (The table is piled up with tapes, a ledger and the dictionary). Some memories annoy him, others, notably a romantic tryst in a punt, enchant him. The 39 year old is confident in the choices he has made, the 69 year old full of regret, notably in his writing. Is this his “final” tape?

Beckett was 52 when he wrote it. You can read whatever you want into it but it seems easy to just take it as autobiography and revel in the power and construction of memory. Failures in love, in work and in drink. It went through many drafts, much like our memories I suppose. The Wiki page is very helpful in fleshing out the characters, real and fictional, mentioned in the monologue and in describing Beckett’s own position at the time of writing.

I can’t pretend I was hanging on every word of James Hayes’s mesmerising performance. but that is because I ended up revisiting my own past in my mind. What better praise can I offer?

Eh Joe is pretty scary. It was SB’s first play for television, first performed in 1966 by Jack MacGowan, for whom it was written, with Sian Philips as The Voice. Joe, in his fifties, is sitting alone on his bed in dressing gown and slippers, with a camera trained on him. He gets up to check windows, curtains, door, cupboard and bed as if in fear. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face from just a metre away which slowly zooms in, nine times, through the remaining 15 minutes or so. Joe is relaxed, though confined, staring at, though not into the camera. Then the voice, here Lisa Dwan, starts hammering away at him, the recording heavily miked, accusatory, recalling their relationship and his abandoning of another woman who attempts suicide. She is the guilt-ridden voice inside his head I guess, the feminine judge of his masculine sin. He has excised the voices of his mother, father and others who may have loved him. The Voice’s words brim with violence. There is Catholic and sexual guilt aplenty. Niall Buggy, for a man who doesn’t speak, is riveting and now I get why Lisa Dwan is so well regarded. Once again it is all about the getting the rhythm and melody of the language to convey interiority.

Lisa Dwan was 12 when she saw Eh Joe on the telly. It stayed with her. I’m not surprised.

Fortunately we were then given a break before The Old Tune, which compared to the two previous plays, was a breeze. Rarely performed, it is a free translation by Beckett of a 1960 radio play, La Manivelle (The Crank) by his Swiss-French mate Robert Pinget. Niall Buggy and David Threlfall are a couple of Dublin old-timers, Gorman and Cream, shooting the breeze on, of course, a bench. They share memories, all the way back to early childhood, but can’t always agree on exactly what. It’s got some laughs.

So that’s that then. No doubt I will be back to Beckett. But for the moment, at least when the performers are on song, memories are made of this ….

Swive at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse review ****

Swive

Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 3rd February 2020

I am very partial to the work of Ella Hickson. Precious Little Talent, Boys, Oil, The Writer, ANNA, all have met their, expansive, ambition. Splendid theatre with something powerful to say. With Swive she has collaborated with director Natalie Abrahami, (who marshalled cast and technology so effectively in ANNA), and has alighted on the life of Elizabeth I, not a novel subject for dramatic treatment, in theatre, film or small screen, but still a vital subject for the dissection of women and power. (The SO, BD and LD scored an early collective lockdown viewing success with Josie Rourke’s cinematic debut Mary, Queen of Scots, for example).

The play is small scale, mixing the political with the domestic, and casts two actors, Nina Cassells as the young Princess Elizabeth, (as well as an unnamed Court washerwoman and Lady Katherine Grey) and Abigail Cruttenden as Queen Elizabeth, (as well as her step-mother Catherine Parr, and her predecessor Mary Tudor). In a series of short scenes, enlivened by Ben Stokes’s sly, chip-boarded, candlelit set and teasing costumes, we see how the young and mature Elizabeth negotiate the patronising and miscalculation of significant male influences, Michael Gould as long time adviser and Protestant defender William Cecil, and Colin Tierney as pervy “step” father Thomas Seymour and hubbie-in-waiting Robert Dudley, and how this extraordinary woman was able, ultimately to rise above patriarchal repression and dominate Court and Country.

This is no dry history though. Key events are obliquely referenced but EH’s and NA’s dialogue is more concerned with the how and why of Elizabeth’s tortuous negotiations, rather than the what, before and during her reign. Overcoming her “illegitimacy”, avoiding the fall-out from the association with the scheming Seymour, countering the threats posed by half- brother Teddy VI, and “bloody” half-sister Catholic, Mary Tudor, stringing Dudley along and pimping him out to Scots Mary, claiming the right to be head of the Church as well as the State, despite Cecil and the other geezer’s misgivings, (yet not, if she had married, head of her family), the obsession with her, and others, uberty (yep new word for me). All are cleverly crammed in but the vernacular words the two Elizabeths use to highlight their dilemmas could come from any woman now, asked to justify herself when justification is unjust and unwarranted.

This equivalence of then and now occasionally fails, the perpetual question of the succession for example as Lady Katherine Grey blows her chances, but the message so vital and the delivery so lucid that it doesn’t matter. Abigail Cruttenden is as deliciously peremptory as you might imagine and Nina Cassells masks the young Elizabeth’s decisiveness with a precocious air of vulnerability. Both are adept at turning the arguments of the men back on themselves.

There are some laugh-out loud zingers, the artifice of the SW Playhouse is acknowledged right at the beginning, and even the candle snuffing and relighting seems rhetorical. All this, the 90 minute run time, a paracetamol and and a wisely chosen perch, meant the Tourist’s back remained in fine-(ish) fettle until the trot back to London Bridge. Not quite enough to persuade him that visits to the SWP, and the Globe, should not remain few and far between given the hair-shirt comfort levels, but more than enough to ensure that Ella Hickson’s remains very near the top of his list of favourite contemporary playwrights.

Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican review

Beethoven Weekender

“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.

Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.

I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.

Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.

Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.

In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.

Something to hang on to until this is all over.

PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.

The Haystack at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

The Haystack

Hampstead Theatre, 31st January 2020

Al Blyth is not your typical playwright. Having studied Econometrics and Mathematical Economics, (disciplines that spend an inordinate amount of time wishing away the presence of us unpredictable humans), he went on to work as a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, though the urge to dramatize never left him. Mind you I suspect the encouragement of his missus, Sam Holcroft, also a playwright (Rules for Living), helped. Still heartless policy wonking’s loss is our gain and Mr Blyth’s previous life certainly helped shaped The Haystack, his first full length play.

It is a gripper. Easy to say why HT’s new AD, Roxana Silbert, reserved this for her directing debut in her first season. (In fact she had already encountered Al Blyth’s work from her previous tenure at Plaines Plough). AB is, as we all should be, profoundly concerned about the potential for State overreach in our world, but, rather than serving up a ranting polemic to draw attention to this, he has written a thriller anchored in a love story and buddy banter. The setting is GCHQ, (which probably now knows more about you than you do yourself), where a couple of IT geeks, Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and Neil (Oliver Johnstone) have been seconded to rustle up some algorithm programmes (or some such) to test the efficacy of the agency’s databases. AB’s point is not that this vast network of information is being used for nefarious purposes, just that the UK, uniquely amongst developed democracies, and thanks to the cobbled together “constitution”, lacks the safeguards to prevent abuse.

We are plunged into the lads’ digital world, brilliantly realised through the kinetic set design of Tom Piper, the lighting of HT regular Rick Fisher, the sound design of the Ringham brothers and the video of Duncan McLean, (a line up more suited to this play is hard to imagine). Gradually it becomes clear to both the no-nonsense boss Hannah (Sarah Woodward) and us the audience that the boys are on to something, but it is when Neil, against Zef’s advice and the rules, starts stalking Cora Preece (Rona Morison) that things really hot up. For bolshie, but somewhat naive, Cora is a Guardian blogger/wannabe journalist, on the rebound from Rob (Oli Higginson), getting her teeth into a story involving Ameera (Sirine Saba), the ex-wife of a really dodgy Saudi businessman type, against the wishes of her seasoned home affairs editor Denise (Lucy Black). Things unsurprisingly turn nasty, as the boys stumble into the story, with much of the story told in flashback or through ingenious use of contiguous conversations (shout to the precise movement mapping of Wayne Parsons).

OK so, even with the pacy direction and invariant dialogue, it does go on a bit, and there are moments of Spooks like cliche, but the twists in the second half, and the multiple issues AB confronts, do ensure we forgive some of the blatancy of the set-up. And Rona Morison, who regular readers will know I have a very high regard for, manages to squeeze out ambiguity in her performance of Cora that simply isn’t there on the page. I can see why some punters might get snide-y about the play, but I was carried along by plot and direction, whilst still thinking about its message.