Monteverdi Vespers at the Barbican Hall review *****

orchestra

The Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Robert Howarth, Louise Alder, Rowan Pierce, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels

Barbican Hall, 23rd June 2017

It was the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. It was bound to get 5 stars.

If you have spent your life blissfully unaware of Monteverdi’s Vespers then I implore you to take a listen. I can see that a few people have accidentally stumbled upon this blog, normally when looking for reviews of plays that proper critics and bloggers haven’t bothered to see. So they had no choice but to read my nonsense. If you are one of these people and you happen to open this post by mistake, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE find a way to listen to the Vespers of 1610.

I don’t care what bag of music you are into. I don’t care if you think classical music is a load of nonsense. This is different. I promise. It does go on a bit I admit. Hour and a half. But it is broken up it to lots of different chunks. And it is divine. In both the sacred and secular sense.

Now if you or I wanted a new job we would ask around. Probably scan the press, specialist and general. Contact an agency or if you are an important sort, tap a headhunter. You would dust off the CV and hawk it around. Not our Claudio though. When he wanted to escape from his overbearing employer the Duke of Mantua, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, he wrote this and sent it off to the movers and shakers in the rest of Italy (though it wasn’t Italy then of course) with a particular eye on a job with the cashed up Pope. He was well known largely for his madrigals, where he was the bees knees, the Ed Sheeran of his day. But he wanted a more prestigious position where he could churn out more weighty stuff – like what happens to all talented pop stars when they “want to be taken seriously”. In the end he got the top gig at St Mark’s in Venice.

This explains why Monteverdi mixed up the various styles of church music, some taken from tunes he had already written, to create this Vespers. The title says it all: “To the Most Holy Virgin: a Mass for four voices, for Church chorus, and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs”. All of the elements of the standard Catholic Vespers are there but interspersed with other elements which make for a masterly mash-up. The piece is unique for its time in the way it looks back to the Renaissance with plainchant melodies anchoring the structures in the five psalms, the hymn (Ave maris stella) and the choruses of the Magnificat, that make up the Vespers. Yet it also looks forward into the Baroque of Bach, and even some proto-Classical homophony, in the four “concertos” and sonata which are more “secular” in sound despite still praising the Virgin Mary to the hilt. All of the contrasting textures, both for voices and instruments, also show why Monteverdi effectively invented opera.

The performance by the AAM and chorus under the guiding hand of Robert Howarth at the harpsichord was excellent I think. Of the soloists we, (BUD wasn’t going to be allowed to miss this one), were most taken with Thomas Hobbes (tenor) and Louise Alder (soprano) but it almost seems churlish to say so. The twenty strong choir was on top form and the AAM (which is made up of some of the finest period music interpreters anyone) was magnificent.

Now you will find smartarses who reject this way of performing the Vespers – several voices to a part, two tenors and two sopranos, step out soloists, “echo’ effects meaning soloists whizzing around the building and so on – but trust me, they can safely be ignored. A perfect Vespers might need a Cathedral and candlelight rather than the Barbican stage but the music is just so amazing that I strongly recommend that you just add this to your bucket list and get on with ticking off. I cast iron guarantee you won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

Ensemble InterContemporain at the Wigmore Hall review ****

ensemble-intercontemporain-wigmore-hall

Ensemble InterContemporain

Wigmore Hall, 20th June 2017

  • Debussy – Premiere rapsodie
  • Bruno Maderna – Viola
  • Messiaen – Le merle noir
  • Philippe Schoeller – Madrigal
  • Luciano Berio – Sequenza 1
  • Ravel – Violin Sonata
  • Matteo Franceschini – Les Excentriques

Ensemble InterContemporain was founded in 1972 by Pierre Boulez and tenures 31 musicians, based in Paris but international in origin, and allows them to focus on contemporary chamber music. Thank you dirigiste France and take note you English philistines.

Having said that I confess I needed a bit of encouragement to pitch up to this which was provided by the Ravel Violin Sonata, which I haven’t heard performed live for donkeys years, as well as the Berio and the Messiaen pieces. I was less interested in the Debussy and the others works were going to be pot luck. But I figured if anyone could make this all work it would be this renowned collective.

Anyway it turned out to be a largely fascinating programme. The Debussy was more colourful than I anticipated. It was written as a test piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire so it gave clarinettist Jerome Comte a chance to work out accompanied by pianist Hideki Nagano (who I think on the night was the most assured performer – I would like to here him play in a solo capacity). The Bruno Maderna is a whole different barrel of fish. This is scored in open form which means the performer (Odile Auboin here) can choose their own route through the score. Interesting but I couldn’t help feeling this made for a somewhat tentative performance with no line I could follow,

The Messiaen piece was also written for students at the Conservatoire, this time flautists. There is a bit of bird song at the off as you might expect, then a few twiddly phrases and finally a mix of serial phrases on the piano and more rhythmic patterns on the flute, here sympathetically played by Sophie Cherrier. Good stuff. Now I confess the structure of the Philippe Schoeller piece escaped me, and the programme notes here went in to pretentious overdrive as they did with the premiered work by Matteo Franceschini. It is a piano quartet “informed” by Renaissance madrigals which contained some dazzling tremolo and glissando sounds as strings and piano came together. It will require some further investigation.

Berio’s Sequenza I is written for flute and, like all the Sequenzas, is a fine, direct piece. It consists of individual notes but you can discern the chords these would create so has a logic which makes listening straightforward. I thought Sophie Cherrier’s rendition was perfect. Ravel’s Violin Sonata (No 2) took him a bit of time to complete and is contemporaneous with his opera L’Enfant et les Sortileges. Like that work it is imbued with the spirit of the jazz, most notably in the “Blues” second movement, but also in phrases in the first movement. The last movement with its dancing semi-quavers for the violin is a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoy Jeanne-Marie Conquer’s playing.

The soloists all returned for the Franceschini piece which is a collection of six character studies based on real though unnamed “eccentric” people. The first and last studies had a bit of pace about them but the other four were a bit more pedestrian and I am afraid I wasn’t up to the task of following the thread of the music.

Overall this was a rewarding evening listening to some fine musicians explore some exciting repertoire. Both Mr Schoeller and Mr Franceschini were in attendance. It is such a joy to see a composer and performers taking a bow. Glad I took the plunge. Contemporary classical music is a specialist pursuit and I get that for the vast majority of people this is all nonsense. But for me it is important that composers and musicians push the boundaries. The audience for modern and contemporary plastic arts is expanding. In time I think the same will happen for contemporary classical music. Mind you finding some mug to go along with is proving a challenge for me but I am convinced I will prevail, even if I may have to employ a little subterfuge.

 

 

 

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall review ****

cadoganhall2

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Jan Mracek

Cadogan Hall, 16th June 2017

  • Berio – Sequenza V for solo trombone
  • Prokofiev – Quintet in G Minor
  • Debussy – Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune,
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto,
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5

A welcome innovation from the RPO at its Cadogan Hall home. As a prelude to the main concert a short chamber concert was served up. In this case, an intriguing pairing of one of Berio’s Sequenzas, here for trombone, alongside Prokofiev’s infrequently programmed (at least in my experience) Quintet. The main concert was a triptych of favoured warhorses which can usually tempt me in.

The Berio piece is the usual exploration of musical technique that these sequenzas demand. There is a healthy dose of humorous novelty at work here in the techniques employed and some of the directions in the score, best of all, the fact that the soloist, has to dress up as a clown (I’ll let you look up Berio’s reasons for this!). The Principal Trombone of the RPO, Matthew Gee, didn’t disappoint, either in his rather elegant outfit (shoes and bald bloke wig being the main concessions) or in playing. The piece is fascinating but smartly doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Prokofiev Quintet is scored for oboe, clarinet, violin, violin and double bass which gives plenty of opportunity for the quirky invention that our Sergei seemed to revel in. The six movements have plenty of dynamic colour and the derivation of the piece, originally a commission for a chamber ballet, is very clear, I was reminded once again that I need to pay more attention to Prokofiev’s chamber music. So I will.

As for the main orchestral pieces, well the Debussy washed over me as it always does so I am afraid I am no real judge of Mr Brabbin’s interpretation nor the RPO’s performance. The Beethoven however took me back to familiar ground and this was a stirring performance by all concerned. Jan Mracek was making his debut with this orchestra having established a growing reputation in his native Czech. His playing is certainly idiomatic of his homeland which made for an interesting contrast with Mr Brabbin’s very deliberate reading. It livened up for finale though I confess I have heard more uplifting endings.

The Shostakovich was the meat course for me though and here Mr Brabbin’s careful phrasing and cool incision paid dividends. This was a performance that really drew out the Mahlerian parallels especially in movements 2 and 3. No irony in the ending here. This was definitively the response to “just criticism” that Shostakovich claimed it was (probably to save his own skin) and could easily be digested by those partial to a bit of C19 romanticism. The pounding Russian rhythms and banal folksy melodies were in evidence but this was more Autumnal middle Europe than Siberian winter. Stalin would have been made up with this first movement. I am not sure this is how I want my DSCH 5 to always sound but it was satisfying to hear this approach given a full airing.

 

 

 

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****

log-blog

Life of Galileo

Young Vic, 21st June 2017

My Brechtian education continues apace. Who would have thought that until a couple of years ago I hadn’t see any Brecht plays at all and frankly wasn’t that interested having been put off by the great man’s reputation. What a klutz I was. Turns out that our Bertolt is just the man for me.

Director Joe Wright (the go to man now for cinematic literary adaptions – and responsible for the best of Season 3’s Black Mirror) makes a number of incisive observations in the programme. Notably he was struck by just how emotionally rich this play is. So was I. You expect Brecht to load you up with ideas and get the grey matter putting a shift in, but you don’t expect to empathise with the characters. Brechtian epic drama requires a distancing between action and audience. That is still achieved, but here however I was also properly drawn in to Galileo’s struggles.

This in part reflects the committed performance of Brendan Cowell. Even before the play “opens” he is pumping up the audience along with the pounding beats of Tom Rowlands’ score (he of Chemical Brothers fame). Through the popularisation of the telescope in C17 Padua and Venice, the observation of planetary motion that supported Copernicus’s theories, the protection accorded to him in Florence, the promulgation of his ideas in vernacular Italian, his years of silence, the summoning to Rome, the torture by the Inquisition, the recantation of his theories, and the final secret dissemination of his ideas, Mr Cowell is a constant and imposing presence. He is just so physically full of belief.

This is ultimately a play about ideas, and specifically pits the rationalism of Science against the dogmatism of the Church. But this production also delivers an emotional wallop and explores Galileo’s (not historically accurate) relationship with his daughter (played by Anjana Vasan, whose advantageous marriage is sacrificed to her father’s certainties) and his pupil Andrea (played by Billy Howle, whose worship turns to disillusionment and finally to advocacy).

This being Brecht though there was still plenty of Verfremdungseffekt to keep you on your toes. A song and dance routine, some excellent puppetry from Sarah Wright to accompany each scene’s introduction, some interesting costume choices, plenty of doubling or more of roles, a “disappearing” scene, aggressive lighting and sound. Best of all though was Lizzie Clachan’s set, in the round, with a circular runway enclosing brave audience members, topped by a dome on to which the techies at 59 Productions (last seen by me working their magic in City of Glass at Lyric Hammersmith) projected cracking images of the cosmos. Our very own planetarium with punters acting as planetary bodies. This is not the first time that I have seen a set designed by Ms Clachan that has prized function as much as form.

Once again I doff my cap to the translator here, John Willett, for providing such a clear and involving rendition of the text. In particular the big speeches are perfectly rendered especially the best of the bunch in the penultimate scene. This is where, I understand, in 1947, Brecht revised the play, goes beyond technological determinism and questions the objectivity of scientific rationalism and the dangers of the Enlightenment project. This chimes with the Marxist Critical theorists in the US at the same time as Brecht (before he went back to East Germany) whose ideas had been shaped by the horrors of WWII. Most of this whizzes over my head but it is still powerful stuff. Remember people a bit of Marxist dialectics isn’t going to turn you into a raving Commie despite what some would have you believe. The nature of Truth in human discourse plainly never goes away.

Sorry veering off again. I just like this combination of drama, theatre craft and ideas. This production is nearly over but I crave the next fix of Brecht. In particular, whilst I loved this “big” production of Life of Galileo, I do hope one day to see a more stripped back version by way of contrast.

My favourite London theatre of 2016

Right then. I know what you are thinking. Doesn’t this numpty know that it’s June 2017. Bit pointless talking about theatre from last year then. Well yes, you may well have a point. However this blog only started in March 2017 and it’s mine anyway so I can do what I like. And the idea primarily is to help identify some lessons about good stuff to come in future, whether it be from writer, director, cast, other creatives or venue. Anyway I suspect all you theatre obsessives will know where I am coming from anyway.

1. Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre/Royal Court Theatre

99296

So i know that technically this was from 2015. But we didn’t get to see it until the transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre having missed the Royal Court run because I am an idiot who failed to book it in time.

It is an extraordinary work. There is no-one who writes for the stage (or film) like Martin McDonagh, though there are echoes to me of the likes of Pinter and Tarantino. It is the combination of fierce intelligence, violence, humour and atmosphere. If you don’t know the plays then you may know his films, notably In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

So if this, or the Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane or any of the five Galway plays from the 1990s, are revived we should pay attention depending on who takes it on. If he makes another film we should also pay attention.

If we are in New York at the beginning of next year then we should see this production of Hangmen at the Linda Gross Theater. Please just go.

We should see what Matthew Dunster, the director, can do with his adaptation of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre this summer (his involvement with the Globe has been mixed – I can’t really comment as the Globe is off limits for me as it is too uncomfortable – sorry).

If and when Johnny Flynn stops singing and acting in mini-series (he is in that Einstein thing apparently – you know it is everywhere on the tube), and takes on another stage role we should go – he is mesmeric – and appears only to do top-notch theatre, Propellor Shakespeares, Richard Bean’s The Heretic, Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Rylance’s Globe Twelfth Night (though I didn’t get on with this).

And best of all we should be salivating at the prospect of David Morrissey taking on the role of Mark Antony at the new Bridge Theatre alongside Ben Wishaw, Michelle Fairley and David Calder. With Nick Hytner directing. We had a few magnificent productions of Julius Caesar recently but this has the potential to match them.

Oh and finally if there is one theatre where you should just buy “blind” if you have any interest at all in the subject based on the admittedly thin blurbs they provide just book it. Pick of the current bunch for me of the current season is Anatomy of a Suicide.

2. Yerma – Young Vic Theatre

cw-11513-medium

So if you have any interest in London theatre you are probably all over this. BUT if you haven’t seen it (the performances later this year sold out sharpish) or if you don’t think this serious theatre caper is for you, then I highly recommend you watch it at the cinema through the NT Live thingamabob on 31st August.

There is much to like here. Lorca’s original play, Simon Stone’s radical re-write and direction, Lizzie Clachan’s stark but effective staging, the performances of Maureen Beattie, John MacMillan, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira and, especially, Brendan Cowell. But in the end it is all about Billie Piper. You will be hard pressed to ever see a more emotionally involving performance at the theatre. No holding back at all.

My guess is we will have to wait a couple of years before Ms Piper returns to the stage but whatever she does after this and The Effect is likely to be mandatory (I didn’t get through Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire at the NT though I had a good excuse).

And if we want to see Mr Stone’s magic elsewhere then we need to follow Toneelgroep Amsterdam where he has productions of Medea and an Ibsen mash-up. Will be interesting to see whether either comes to London at any point.

As for the Young Vic well right now the Life of Galileo by Brecht is playing with, drum roll please, Brendan Cowell, in the lead. Tickets still available and I loved it.

3. Uncle Vanya – Almeida Theatre

uncle_vanya_banner

This seemed to sneak under the wire a bit. I thought it was outstanding. Maybe director Robert Icke’s Red Barn at the National Theatre or his version of Schiller’s Mary Stuart with Lia Williams  and Juliet Stevenson garnered more attention, or perhaps everyone was taking a breather after Mr Icke had smashed it out of the park with his Oresteia for the Almeida in 2015. Any way up he is the most exciting director right now in the UK and this cemented that reputation.

Mr Icke himself updated the text and shifted the “action” to rural England. The production took its time and the sense of ennui was attenuated by Hildegard Bechtler’s slowly revolving set. And Paul Rhys as Vanya/John could hardy be bettered with his man-child lost demeanour. The rest of the cast, notably Jessica Brown Findlay, Vanessa Kirby, Hilton McCrae and Tobias Menzies, collectively kept their ends up. The detail of the characterisations was riveting. The individual pyscho-dramas perhaps can more to the fore pushing the social context back a bit but I reckon you can have a bit too much of the “everything’s about to go tits up in Russia and these minor aristos don’t know it” benefit of hindsight in Chekhov anyway. It is always better when you you get more of sarky Anton nailing the “shit just happens” frustrations of life.

So if you are one of the infinitesimally tiny number of regular readers of this blog you will know that I have high hopes for the next couple of productions at the Almeida: Ink by James Graham (writer of This House which may yet turn out to be an instruction manual for the vicissitudes of minority government in the UK) directed by Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel and Richard Doyle and then Against by Christopher Shinn and directed by Ian Rickson with Ben Wishaw in the lead.

Meanwhile one of Robert Icke’s next projects is an Oedipus with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and with Hans Kesting in the lead. I pray this come to London as Hans Kesting without question is the best stage actor I have seen. OMG.

4. Kings of War – Barbican Theatre

kings-of-war-barbican-922

Talking of Hans Kesting here is a picture of him as Richard III in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War at the Barbican. TA premiered this production in 2015 and brought in to London last year. It takes five Shakespeare history plays, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III, and mashes them up to extract the best bits in a four and a half hour spectacle that gets to the heart of what political power means.

Is it better than the similarly envisioned Roman Tragedies? (review here – Roman Tragedies at the Barbican review *****). I couldn’t tell you. There are both works of astonishing theatre. There have been a few let downs from TA and its inspirational artistic director Ivo van Hove, notably Obsession, but this showcases what he and his ensemble is capable of. So, as and when, this returns do not miss it.

And Mr van Hove has a number of forthcoming engagements on the London stage with Network coming up later in the year at the National the pick of the bunch.

5. Escaped Alone – Royal Court Theatre

ESCAPED ALONE

I have something of a weakness for unsubstantiated hyperbole. But here goes. Caryl Churchill is the greatest British playwright since Shakespeare. The best theatre plays with ideas and form and creates lasting impressions in the mind which simply cannot be replicated by any other artistic medium. Caryl Churchill does this again and again and again. No hype, no endless interviews explaining what she is doing/has done. Just perfectly formed, intense works that magically appear and seem to have addressed everything worth addressing over the past five decades or so. I just wish I had seen more of them.

Escaped Alone, in under an hour, explored the nightmare of apocalyptic, ecological collapse in a hilariously surrealist way, intertwined with, at turns, the banal and sinister fears and stories of four mature women ostensibly chatting in a back garden. That is my attempt at a summary but it does no justice at all to the ideas and images that just pour out of this play. As always with Caryl Churchill you just marvel at the alchemy of how so much insight into the big questions of humanity flows from these non-naturalistic, but never truly absurd, structures.

So as and when the next new play appears just go. And the same advice applies to any Churchill revival, anywhere. anytime.

6. Oil – Almeida Theatre

oil_website_1470x690

Back to the Almeida for Ella Hickson’s ambitious play Oil, directed by Carrie Cracknell and with the magnificent Anne-Marie Duff in the lead. So I get that the text and the pacing of the production was a little uneven but I didn’t care. Ms Hickson created such a compelling narrative, mixing the geo-political epic with a detailed mother-daughter relationship which hits you on some many levels. I have seen Anne-Marie Duff steal the show in a number of very different plays but she has never been better than in this role. And I doubt there is a better director in Britain today of towering female roles than Ms Cracknell (The Deep Blue Sea, A Doll’s House and Medea are recent examples).

Now it looks like Anne-Marie Duff’s latest outing at the National Theatre, Common, is getting a bit of a pasting. I will be taking a peek shortly so will make up my own mind. She is also pencilled in to a Macbeth next year alongside Rory Kinnear and directed by Rufus Norris. Surely that will be unmissable.

As for Ella Hickson, I would love to see a revival of Boys, and I think that it is only a matter of time before she pens an undisputed contemporary classic. And if anyone knows what Carrie Cracknell is tackling next I would love to know.

We are blessed in this country right now with a generation of outstanding female playwrights and directors but I for one would like to see way more come through. This play shows why.

7. The Rolling Stone – Orange Tree Theatre

the_rolling_stone_1142_484x580_20151215

Royal Court, Almeida and Young Vic all unsurprisingly represented in my top ten list and I have no doubt they will be again this year. As will, I suspect, the Orange Tree which continues to turn out work of the highest quality, whether revivals or new plays. They may not always be my cup of tea but artistic director Paul Miller and his team seem to have an extraordinary knack of identifying and staging rich theatrical material.

The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch was a winner of the biennial Bruntwood Prize winner in 2013 and premiered at the Royal Exchange Manchester so was hardly a secret. But it was still terrific to see the Orange Tree pick it up for its London premiere and it deservedly won a slew of Offies (the London fringe theatre awards).

It is an examination of the persecution that gay men face in Uganda largely told through the words and actions of one family. It packs an extraordinarily powerful emotional punch and will leave you seething with anger at the actions of church, state and media which combine to pursue a modern witch-hunt.

This is Chris Urch’s second play and I await with interest his next project which I believe is a screenplay for a biopic of the life of Alexander McQueen. And without exception I keep my eye out for the excellent cast, Faith Alabi, Fiston Barek, Jo Martin, Julian Moore-Cook, Faith Omole and Sule Rimi (who has popped up in a number of subsequent productions I have seen and has been uniformly excellent in these).

8. Les Blancs – National Theatre

lesblancs-1280x720-sm

The proper luvvies are in a little bit of a tizzy over Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the National. I admit it has become a bit of a lottery, particularly when it comes to the Olivier stage, but there have been some belting productions in the last couple of years. And for me this was the best of the bunch last year.

Now this probably reflects the fact that I have never seen A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry masterpiece. Following this version of Les Blancs it is now right at the front of the queue of plays that I simply must see. I was bowled over by this version of Les Blancs. It is an immense play which explores post-colonialism in 1960s Africa with an unforgiving eye. There is a lot of grand speechifying to advance the arguments but the didacticism never proceeds to simplistic resolution. I gather Ms Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nemiroff, had a major hand in completing this play after her untimely death. The set, sound, lighting, music and even smell could not have been bettered and for once I think the best seat in the house was upstairs at the back since there was so much to savour.

South African director Yael Farber seems to have presided over a duffer with Salome currently on at the National (I haven’t seen it yet) but her direction in this Les Blancs was sublime. And I don’t know what stage Danny Sapani will next grace (you will have seen him on the telly) but wherever it is I will try to go.

9. Orca – Southwark Playhouse

orca-at-southwark-playhouse-rona-morrison-maggie-carla-langley-fan-and-simon-gregor-joshua1-700x455

This was Matt Grinter’s debut play which won the Paptango new writing prize. I thought it was brilliant. In just 75 minutes Mr Grinter conjures up a place which seems far removed from our modern world and his tale of ritual abuse in a closed community conjures up a real sense of foreboding. I suppose some might label it “folk horror” at a pinch but it was just so much smarter than that label implies. It confronts the reality of the outrages that even today are visited upon women by men who hold power over them.

The setting is a fishing community on an island to the north of Scotland I surmised. An elder sister Maggie played by Rona Morison tries to prevent her younger sister Fan (Carla Langley) from undergoing the same unspecified but clearly dreadful fate which she refused to endure. Their father (Simon Gregor) won’t step in because he cannot face continuing to be shunned by the rest of the tight knit community. The patriarchal head of the community The Father played by Aden Gillett is genuinely one of the most disturbing characters I have ever seen on stage,

I’ll stop there just in case it gets revived but this was a riveting watch under the direction of Alice Hamilton. And the set by Frankie Bradshaw in the smaller space in the Southwark Playhouse (where they put on all the good stuff) was beyond ingenious. I don’t know if I imagined the cold, damp sea air that night, or whether that was all part of the production, but I really felt I was cut off from the rest of the world and not a few yards from the Elephant and Castle.

I await Matt Grinter’s next writing excursion with extreme interest.

10. Julius Caesar – Donmar King’s Cross

julius-ceasar-donmar-warehouse1

This is what Shakespeare is all about. Phyllida Lloyd and her all female cast led by the redoubtable Harriet Walter added The Tempest to the previous productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV and set them up in a temporary stage at bargain prices in Kings Cross. All three took the venerable texts and smashed them over your head. Breathtaking.

I pick Julius Caesar solely because it is my favourite of the three plays. And I think the setting of all three plays in a women’s prison achieved most resonance in this play with its themes of conflict and the misuse of power. Directorial concepts in Shakespeare are vital in my view to illuminate the timeless brilliance of the insight but they can fall flat. Not here.

I think Harriet Walter’s Brutus is the best I have seen and I would also, if pushed, single out Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony (to add to her amazing Ariel in The Tempest). She was the only decent contributor to the dreadful Jamie Lloyd Faustus and I await her next major role with interest. The same goes for Sheila Atim who next pitches up in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic.

Harriet Walter can read the phone directory and I would still go and Phyllida Lloyd could direct a bunch of phone directories and I would still go.

Best of all this Julius Caesar will be in cinemas soon so catch it if you haven’t already seen it.

 

So there we go. My favourites from last year. Honourable mentions also to Complicite’s Encounter which I finally got to see at the Barbican, Schaubuhne Berlin’s The Forbidden Zone also at the Barbican, Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day musical at the Old Vic, and Jess and Joe Forever by Zoe Cooper and Blue Heart by the mighty Caryl Churchill both at the Orange Tree.

This year is ramping up to be similarly fine for London theatre with plenty of contenders already. Enjoy.

 

 

Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

anatomy-of-a-suicide

Anatomy of a Suicide

Royal Court Theatre, 22nd June 2017

There are many extraordinary things about Anatomy of a Suicide. One is that there are still tickets left in the run at the Royal Court. Snap them up. Another is that as far as I can see all the serious reviews give it 4 stars. I have no idea why they dropped a star. This is as good as theatre gets in my book.

To be fair it is an intense couple of hours. And the formal construction will keep you on your toes. But it connects emotionally and intellectually. We know Katie Mitchell is a brilliant director. We know Alice Birch is a writer of rare talent from Ophelia’s Zimmer and Revolt she said, revolt again as well as the recent. screenplay for Lady Macbeth. Together though they have, along with the three outstanding lead actors, created another powerful and brave piece of theatre. I can’t get it out of my head and the more I think about it the richer the experience becomes.

The title and the proper reviews will tell you the story. Hattie Morahan plays Carol, Kate O’Flynn plays her daughter Anna and Adelle Leonce in turn plays Anna’s daughter Bonnie. The play opens in the early 1970’s in a hospital following Carol’s attempted suicide. The emptiness brought on by her depression is painstakingly mapped out by Hattie Morahan whose every gesture reeks of defeat. The birth of Anna only serves to increase her despair. In turn we first see Anna in hospital. intoxicated, having injured herself. She eventually seems to straighten out and start a new life but pregnancy and the birth of Bonnie cannot lift her depression and erase the memory of her mother’s eventual suicide. She too ends her life. Bonnie, whose story starts in the 2030’s is haunted by the fate of her mother and grandmother and plots a path to avoid this through career and childlessness.

This is the bare bones. As I am writing this I am conscious that it doesn’t even get close to describing just how much detail and insight Alice Birch is able to wring from her intricate text. She indicates in her notes that the play is “scored” and the three stories are presented in landscape across the page in the playtext. The three lives are revealed concurrently and the lines intersect and, at some points, are spoken simultaneously even down to the same word. This creates all manner of profound juxtaposition which echo across the three generations.

Most of the reviews I have seen focus on the portrayal of depression and “mental illness” which directly afflict Carol and Anna, and reverberate through Bonnie’s life. I see this but I think I also saw a profound essay on the role of women in modern Western society. “Wife” and “Mother” seem to crush Carol and Anna and leave no space for their own identity, and Bonnie’s alternatives still leave her seemingly unable to connect. The other characters are generally thinly drawn, deliberately I surmise, but brilliantly serve to show how the women are boxed in. The scene and costume changes, with the three leads reduced to mannequins, reinforced this idea of lives being shaped by others.

With such an ambitious text and with such a creative form (others have drawn the parallel with Caryl Churchill – I agree) it needed expert direction. It got it. The set is minimal (until a minor coup de theatre at the end which maybe offered some redemption) leaving prop and costumes to mark change. The delivery of the text seemed perfect to me. The sound design was immense. The background ambient noise was augmented by off-stage accents of music, parties, babies crying – happier lives if you like – which made the disconnection of the characters more striking. And the intricacy of the words and sound was matched, maybe surpassed, by the intricacy of the movement, within and between scenes. There was even room for a couple of trademark Ms Mitchell slow motion shuffles

I will stick my neck out and say that the reputation of this play and production is only going to grow through time. It is dense and it requires attention but I found it deeply profound and emotionally involving. I am going to stop now because I don’t think I am getting anywhere close to explaining how powerful this is. Please go even if the subject puts you off.

Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

terror-website-image

Terror

Lyric Hammersmith, 19th June 2017

Terror is not your typical piece of theatre. It is a courtroom drama yes, but not in the form of a classic “did he/she or didn’t he/she do it”. Nor is it especially interested in probing the psychological make-up of accused, victim or legal representatives. Instead it is focussed on a classic moral dilemma: which takes precedence, the rule of law and the principles that lie behind it, or the conscience of the individual.

Writer Ferdinand von Schirach sets the stakes pretty high though. The defendant Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) is an exemplary major and fighter pilot in the German air force. He has admitted shooting down a commercial plane which had been hijacked by a terrorist. In doing so 164 people have died but potentially he has saved the lives of 70,000 in a football stadium, the known target of the terrorist. The facts are succinctly laid out by Christian Lauterbach (John Lightbody), the air force officer tasked with co-ordinating any response to this sort of event. Major Koch was expressly ordered not to shoot down the plane but chose to go ahead. The judge (Tanya Moodie), prosecuting (Emma Fielding) and defence (Forbes Masson) counsels lay out the arguments with some eloquence and pull in a few classic examples from ethics and moral philosophy (the trolley problem for example). We also here the testimony of one of the victim’s wives played by Shanaya Rafaat.

We the audience then toddle off to the short interval, have a debate about what we think (as a number of people around me were doing – Billy No Mates here once again had to have a debate inside his head) and then return to press a button to decide if the major is guilty or not guilty.

It is thought provoking stuff but only works as a piece of theatre because of the canniness of the writing. Mr von Schirach’s day job is as a lawyer. I am guessing he is a flipping good lawyer. I have no idea how “accurate” a representation of the German legal system this “trial” is, but I am not sure it matters, so deftly is the dilemma set up. The set design by the very talented Anna Fleische is imposing and the direction by the Lyric’s own Sean Holmes is typically confident. The excellent cast also rises to the occasion. For me though the real hero here is translator David Tushingham. The role of translator is often overlooked but if I admired the economy of the text here this evidently reflects the skill of translator as well as playwright. I note that Mr Tushingham also translated Winter Solstice by Richard Schimmelpfenning which enthralled me at the Orange Tree earlier in the year. He was also dramaturg for the Forbidden Zone, one of Schaubuhne Berlin’s finest exports to these shores.

So if you and some mates are looking for a thought provoking night out, (with plenty of time for some grub and/or a livener or two afterwards as this comes in well under 2 hours even with the break), then you could do worse than secure some tickets for Terror. And after it is all over, check out the Lyric website to see how your audience jury compared to the many previously across the world. I won’t say what I thought.