The Winter’s Tale at the Barbican review ****

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The Winter’s Tale

Silk Street Theatre, 18th April 2017

Now I have always thought if you just cut out the “pastoral comedy” fourth act from the “comedy” The Winter’s Tale, stopped calling it a “romance” because you can’t think of a better name and reined back the “magic” then you would have a perfectly good tragedy with a partial redemption at the end.

Leontes is a jealous man-child from the off and he just can’t suppress or hide it. It consumes him. Camillo and Paulina can see it and will take steps to try limit the damage. Shove in an oracle to show the truth, ignore it, then pay the consequences with death of Son, Mamillius, and abandonment of pregnant wife, Hermione. Luckily Daughter, Perdita, is subsequently saved by nice peasants and falls in love with spurned friend’s Son, Florizel. All return and discover wife never died in the first place but just to make sure you have learnt your lesson Leontes, create elaborate “statue comes to life” illusion. Happy ever after excepting memory of dead Son which is the punishment for uncontrolled jealously.

No need for shepherds, clowns or, most importantly, annoyingly unfunny pedlars and no real need for magical explanations. Oracle, Bear, Time and Statue just interesting theatrical opportunities to move us on to where we need to be and a bit of fun for designers. No need to keep it real here – those stage directions might just be big WIll having a laugh.

Anyway I have yet to see a production that boots out Act 4 but I guess it has been done. I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s version at the Garrick in 2015 (on the big screen not in the theatre) though this was mostly down to him (he really is a very fine actor when he wants to be) and Dame Judi obviously. Wish I had seen it live. I saw the Painkiller with LD as part of that Branagh season, which we thought was hilarious (and again where Branagh was outstanding), but also Harlequinade which didn’t float my boat at all and The Entertainer which, I have to conclude, is just a rubbish play.

So we (SO and I) also enjoyed Cheek By Jowl’s last visit to the Barbican in 2014 with their perennial Tis Pity She’s A Whore (once SO was apprised of the fact that this was a tragedy and not a comedy) which is/was a pretty visceral take on Ford’s everyday tale of incest. deception and murder.

It seems to me that Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the brains behind CBJ, could never be accused of taking the lazy path and think carefully about all of the classics that they take on. This is no different. Orlando James’s Leontes clearly has a massive temper on him and his irrational and violent behaviour is there from the off. Mamillius (Tom Cawte who really makes a mark) is an unpleasant chip off the old block – witness his full blown tantrum. Hermione, again an excellent performance by Natalie Radmell-Quirke, seems perversely only to wind him up further with her blamelessness. There is that sense that both husband and wife are helpless to stop the worst happening – watch Leontes positioning Hermione and Polixenes to visualise his suspicions. And everyone in the Court looks like they have seen this all before, notably Camillo and Paulina (David Carr and Joy Richardson).

The oracle scene, with the smart use of video to capture the play of emotions on their faces, works very well. Indeed the whole staging, sparse, as is the fashion, with just a white box with collapsing panels to ring the changes of setting, and with dramatic lighting courtesy of Judith Greenwood and music courtesy of Paddy Cunneen, works extremely well in my eyes.

So all good and gripping. And then Act bloody 4. The team throws a lot at this, with knowing verbal and song references to the miserable and comic bits by Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus, who has a natty wardrobe, and a Kylesque trash TV skit. It is diverting and better than bales of hay, flutes, sheep and morris dancers, but I still found the whole thing a pointless break in the story. When we get back to Sicily things pick up again and the final, statue scene is very fine for being restrained with a Renaissance style tableau created by the cast at the end as Maxillius returns as, I think, a school kid in a gallery.

So I liked it. I can see it might be a bit analytical for some but if you want a clear exposition of what can be a tricky play then take a look. It may be done and dusted in London but you can see the Livestream recording on the CBJ website or on I Player. So on your night in this week why not swap your Game of Thrones or MasterChef for a bit of Shakespeare. And don’t forget, when that Autolycus appears feel free to fast forward.

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Whitechapel Gallery review ****

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Eduardo Paolozzi

Whitechapel Gallery, 6th April 2017

I guess most Londoners will be familiar with Eduardo Paolozzi’s work from his monumental public sculptures such as Newton outside the British Library, The Head of Invention outside the gorgeous new Design Museum,  a Vulcan on Royal Victoria Dock and the mosaics now restored to Tottenham Court Road station. These works represent perhaps the apogee of his oeuvre but this retrospective is an ideal insight into the works that lead up to this and into the themes with which he was preoccupied.

Mr Paolozzi was a big fella judging by the photos and looked more like a shipbuilder to me than an artist. So these glorious man-machine sculptures that he left us to enjoy somehow seem appropriate. But the exhibition also shows a much more delicate hand at work.

He is considered one of pop art’s pioneers. The slide show that appears early in the exhibition (the Bunk Show), with its collage of consumerist images culled from popular print media, understandably initially baffled its audience. This was the early 1950’s – manly, artistic blokes were supposed to be aggressively sluicing industrial quantities of paint onto vast canvasses, not cutting out adverts from magazines. But clearly our man was ahead of the curve. Moreover the obsession Mr P had with colour and line, toys and especially robots, and indeed the future generally was clear from the off. The early works also include a number of simply beautiful sculptures, not just in bronze, which show off the trademark human forms made up of bits of machine like Leonardo had just gone apesh*t in the toolshed. The influence of the likes of Giacometti, Arp, Brancusi and Leger (especially) is clear – Mr P was in Paris in the 1950s. And plainly there is a clear link back to cubism in his sculpture especially.

We then move to a dazzling array of collages, screen-prints, textiles and even fashions (with some trusted collaborators notably through Hammer Prints and with JG Ballard) made up of bold colours assembled in intricate designs (the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road will give you the idea). This experimentation with media, material and image through construction and deconstruction continues upstairs. I confess that the prints, collages and textiles are less vital to my eyes than the sculpture but, even so, the effect of so many works (250 odd) is compelling.

He taught, he wrote, he inspired, he was a proper European (born in Scotland of Italian parents, worked in France and Germany as well as UK), he was knighted and he gave most of his work away to us. He ploughed his furrow, was a bit on the scatty side and didn’t really fit in with the kaleidoscope of artistic movements in the second half of the C20 (indeed there are a couple of works here that amusingly take the p*ss out of his more earnest contemporaries).

But his work is just really easy to like. In everything there is a sense of a child at play – which for me is always a good sign in modern art – and I smiled a lot. You could say, at the end of the day, that all this collaging was a bit one-dimensional but I think that is sniffily unfair. And yes the output was a bit variable. And maybe the later works are a touch self-regarding but isn’t that the way with most “popular” artists. But it doesn’t hurt your head or try to wind you up. And it does cheer you up.

So get yourself along to this. Whitechapel Gallery is usefully open late on a Thursday and is obviously perfectly placed for a spot of grub thereafter. There are still a couple of weeks left to go.

 

Bach’s St John Passion at the Barbican Hall review ****

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Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Barbican Hall, 14th April 2017

Britten Sinfonia
Mark Padmore – Evangelist/director
Jacqueline Shave –  leader/director
Simon Russell Beale – speaker
Britten Sinfonia Voices

JS Bach – St John’s Passion

They were a glum looking bunch these great classical composers weren’t they? It is alright for us with our endless, carefully composed, beaming selfies but these poor b*ggers only had one shot at pictorial immortality normally and relied on some hack artist to deliver it. Of course, the real reason they all look grumpy is obviously because it is so tricky to paint a smile. But I find it interesting that a combination of the “genius” theory of artistic accomplishment together with these received pictorial representations so often leads us into divining the temperament of the man (for alas it was always a man) from his music.

Anyway JS does look a bit stern in this picture. I guess he was a pious chap but then that might largely have come with the job. In contrast the St John Passion to me is anything but stern and pious. It is a dramatic story, well told, with no let up in pace (the bigger St Matthew Passion is not necessarily better in my view for clocking in at 3 hours vs the 2 hours here). JSB mixes up the recitative and chorus, the solo arias, the chorales and the musical accompaniment to marvellous effect here.

Now this performance was delivered, as I understand it, with the forces intended by JSB, so a couple of everything, first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, flutes and oboes, augmented by double bass, cor anglais, bassoon, organ continuo and oboe d’amore and viola da gamba. Thus a mix of modern and period instruments. Each of the vocal parts was a single line sung by eleven members of Britten Sinfonia Voices, including its director Eamonn Dougan, alongside Mark Padmore, who is, rightly, considered a pre-eminent singer of the Evangelist role, and whose vision this performance was.

However, I have to say that the Barbican Hall is not the cosiest venue for such an enterprise, which impacted a couple of the arias, and, just occasionally, swallowed Mr Padmore’s recitative. and ensured that some of the more vibrant chorales were a bit murky.

Laid on top of the piece were a couple of readings from the mighty Simon Russell-Beale, of Psalm 22 and an incredibly moving Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot. I doubt there is a man on earth who is better at thundering out this sort of stuff whilst making it look easy – just marvellous – though I guess it will have wound up the purists. And the piece ended, as apparently it did in JSB’s day in Leipzig, with a restorative motet by a chap called Jacob Handl.

Overall then I enjoyed this performance, though my attention did wander a bit. I am persuaded by this stripped back approach with mostly modern instruments when compared to the big guns approach which I have experienced for this, and the St Matthew Passion in the past, but I wonder if a smaller hall and a definitive leader on stage might have just helped clarify things a little.

Still this is just minor grumbling. At the end of the day it is still a beautiful piece of music whichever way you cut it, notably in the chorales at the top of each Part and the run of arias post the Crucifixion. I am looking forward to the next Bach workout.

Verdi Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Bach Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 13th April 2017

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko – Conductor
Maija Kovalevska – Soprano
Karen Cargill – Mezzo-Soprano
Saimir Pirgu – Tenor
Alexander Vinogradov – Bass
The Bach Choir

Verdi – Requiem

Right. Off to the RFH with BUD for a bit of Verdi Requiem action. I have heard performances of this Requiem in the very distant past but was curious to re-visit as part of the ongoing musical education and to find out if I was missing a trick with my wholesale rejection of the Verdian operatic canon.

Well I can safely say that the RPO under Mr Petrenko and the Bach Choir gave this a right going over. I guess that is the point of the Verdi Requiem but even so it was a sight to see and hear. The Dies Irae pinned us right back in our seats. Even if you profess no interest in classical music yo will have heard this a million times (check out the link below if you don’t believe me). And it is a rollicking good tune. And, to be fair, in other parts where the volume is cranked up to 11 like the Sanctus, it is hard not to be carried along. But this is undeniably an operatic piece masquerading as a Requiem, so for long stretches there are repeated “arias” with gushing, melodramatic orchestral support. I fear it is just not for me. Some of us like our music with the bones and muscle on show; some of us prefer to see it dolled up to the nines with frocks and wigs. For me Verdi, however hummable the tunes, is an arch exponent of the latter category. Still different strokes for different folks eh.

Verdi Requiem – Dies Irae

And we definitely enjoyed the racket the Bach Choir made and the performances of the soloists, notably the tenor and soprano. I have a couple of Mr Petrenko’s Shostakovich recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which are excellent, and there was, for me, a bit of Shostakovian backbone in the playing.

So lots to admire and plenty of learning but I think I know I can safely tuck Giuseppe, along with his mate Giacomo, back in the box marked not for me.

Tenebrae and the Aurora Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square review ****

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Tenebrae and Aurora Orchestra: Bach and Faure

St John’s Smith Square, 12th April 2017

Tenebrae
Aurora Orchestra
Emma Walshe – Soprano
Stephen Kennedy – Baritone
Max Baillie – Violin
Nigel Short – Conductor

Bach – Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein BWV245
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Allemande BWV1004
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Courante BWV1004
Bach – Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV277i
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Sarabande BWV1004
Bach – Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt BWV277ii
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Gigue BWV1004
Bach – Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden BWV244
Bach – Ciaconna with chorale themes BWV1004
Fauré – Requiem (1893 version)

So I put a shift in for Holy Week with this, a Verdi Requiem and a Bach St John Passion. To be clear my interest is solely musical. I am afraid I am unlikely to shift from my firm atheistic position despite spending an inordinate amount of time now in churches, cathedrals and, occasionally, other places of worship, and also listening now to a disproportionate amount of music initially composed with a religious purpose.

So first off was this intriguing mix of Bach and Faure. I have seen the Aurora Orchestra a couple of times at Kings Place but this was the first time at SJSS. They are the band that plays key bits of the canon from memory which is a sight in itself. And this was the first time I have heard Tenebrae. Now I am a bit of a sucker for the atmosphere that SJSS conjures up, especially in the evening and with a bit of candlelight, as we had here. Sorry I know how shallow this sounds, but if you do chance upon something you like the sound of here, then I guarantee you won’t be let down by the acoustic or the surroundings. And you get a seat not a pew, vital for those of us at the elevated end of the posterior scale.

Anyway it took me a bit of time to adjust to the mix of the Bach Partita No 2 being interspersed with the Bach chorales, but once ears and head were there I was gripped. Now I cheerfully admit I have only just got going on the Bach discovery road. So the chorales on show here were new to me and, whilst I have a recording of the Partitas by Rachel Podger, I haven’t yet digested it. Anyway the thing is this Partita is a jolly affair based on dances and you get the usual Bach solo instrument thing of “how on earth is there so much going on when there is just one bloke/lady playing”. I am sure I have seen Max Baillie, the lead violinist for Aurora, do some solo work before, but I cannot remember what and where. Anyway he was fabulous. As was the Tenebrae choir with the chorales. Terrific stuff. Still no idea what I am listening too musically and the programme notes went right over my head but no matter. Have a quick peek here at one of the funkiest bits.

Bach Partita No 2 in D Minor BWV 1004 Giga

Now I will say this very quietly. I had never heard the Faure Requiem live before and don’t own a recording. Following this I get why people rave about it though it may not be entirely my cup of tea. There are some ravishing bits, the Kyrie, Offertoire and the In Paradisum ending (with the twiddly organ bit like an 80s synth band), and the lower register of the instrumentation is very appealing, but there’s a little bit of sweetness in the mix which is not for me. And I would probably prefer a slightly quicker run through than this performance offered. But all up I get it so don’t start shouting at me and I will get a recording asap. In fact the nice lady next to me at the concert pointed out that Tenebrae have recorded this very programme with the LSO and I spy a fairly priced offer from my friends at musicMagpie (along with dodax-online my choice of online retailer for CDs).

So all in all another winner.

 

 

London theatre update

So a few things to note since the last London theatre update.

Booking opens 5th May (earlier for members of various hues) for the new batch of productions at the National Theatre. I reckon tickets for Follies, the Sondheim musical with a cast of thousands and the pocket rocket Imelda Staunton in the lead, will sell like the proverbial hot cakes. I also have my eye on Mosquitoes, the new play by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, NSFW, The Children) with Olivia Colman off the telly.

Booking for the 4 way RSC Shakespeare Roman plays extravaganza is now open at the Barbican.

The new Bridge Theatre inaugural season is announced and I am so excited. Public booking opens 27th April. I recommend all 3 of the openers. Young Marx with Rory Kinnear as Marx, Oliver Chris as Engels, written by Richard Bean and Clive Colman and directed by Nicholas Hytner himself. The Julius Caesar not only has Ben Wishaw as Brutus but David Morrissey (last seen in the magnificent Hangmen by Martin McDonagh – best play of the last 3 years) as Mark Antony. And there is a new work, Nightfall by Barney Norris, which sounds intriguing (the refurbished Bush Theatre has While We’re Here, another new play by busy Barney, coming up). And the Bridge has lined up future new works by Nina Raine (about Bach yesssssss !!!! with Simon Russell Beale yessssss !!!), whose Consent I have yet to see at the NT, and by Lucy Prebble based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, as well as by Sam Holcroft and Lucinda Coxon.

Against at the Almeida will be booking from mid May.

The Old Vic is set to stage The Divide, the new play by Alan Ayckbourn, set in a future dystopian England, after a run at the Edinburgh Festival. Sounds like a cracker, mind you not too many laughs I am guessing from the blurb. No booking details yet.

I am casting an eye over Little Foot (by South African playwright Craig Higginson) and Doubt, A Parable (JP Shanley which was made into a film I gather) at the Southwark Playhouse (who are also bringing back Kiki’s Delivery Service which is a belter if you have littl’uns).

Everything Between Us (by David Ireland), Food and Mr Gillie look like the best of the bunch in the new Finborough theatre season.

And I have booked 3 of the 5 offerings at the end of July at the Orange Tree where they are letting young directors’, studying at St Mary’s round the corner in Strawberry Hill, loose on early plays by James Graham, Brad Birch, David Ireland, Enda Walsh and Kate Tempest. £7.50 a pop to support aspiring talent. Go on.

Finally I am weighing up the RSC Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the transfer from Stratford but can’t quite make up my mind though Romola Garai in the lead may tip the balance.

Happy theatre going.

The Lottery of Love at the Orange Tree review ***

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The Lottery of Love

The Orange Tree Theatre, 13th April 2017

Apparently there is even a noun for it, “Marivaudage”. Slightly sarcastically applied, but it describes a way of writing that is precious or affected, and is derived from our friend Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (I so wish my name was as replete with syllables), whose romcom Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard was on show here in a translation by John Fowles.

This was my first exposure to Marivaux and all up it was OK. The action has been transposed from C18 France to Regency England. Posh daughter Sylvia is engaged to Richard but has never met him. So she asks Dad if she can swap identities with her maid Louisa and Dad says yes, as you would. But our suitor Richard has the same idea and swaps identities with his man Brass. But Dad knows this having received a letter to that effect from a mate. And brother is also pulled in to the deception to spice it up. Cue confusion, some gentle satire on the behaviour of the toffs and the servants, some will she/he, won’t she/he, fall in love, the reveal and an all live happy ever after denouement.

So I guess not the most incisive or surprising of plots (it is after all rooted in the stock characters and plots of commedia dell’arte), though there is a bit of keeping up with who knows what. In fairness, it gets to the point mercifully quickly and director (Paul Miller), cast and especially translator, in the inestimable Mr Fowles, all apply a delicate touch. Kier Charles as Brass lays it on a bit thick as vulgar cockney playing milord but that does at least ratchet up the gag count. Claire Lams as Louisa (who was very good in Kiss Me at the Hampstead Theatre as she needed to be in a play with a slightly one dimensional premise) was a little subtler.

The standout for me though was Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Sylvia. She was the best thing by far in the Philanderer at the Orange Tree as well last year. Shaw can annoy me at the best of times and in contrast to most of the audience and the reviews I really didn’t like this. Otherwise I confess I have not seen her on stage but she was perfect in this, nimble of speech and movement and well beyond caricature. Surely only a matter of time before she is on the telly as an Austen lead (Emma Woodhouse the obvious choice). I assume, with a name like that, this was her parent’s plan from the off.

So overall a pleasant enough afternoon with the pensioners who make up the OT matinee audience though I might have wished for a little more exploration of the class conflicts at the heart of the plot, as well as the love stuff. Still a decent enough entry point in Marivaux. Now I need some more Moliere revivals.

As an aside for those who don’t know the Orange Tree, it is, in my view, the best “fringe” theatre in London, closely followed to be fair by the Southwark Playhouse, Park Theatre, Arcola and Finborough. Not everything turns to gold under Paul Miller’s stewardship, especially in some of the the OT revivals, but when it gets it right it is outstanding. Recent favourites have included Jess and Joe Forever (a stunningly inventive work by Zoe Cooper), The Rolling Stone (a powerful indictment of intolerance in Uganda by Chris Urch), The Brink (another dark new play by Brad Birch), Winter Solstice (a formally inventive comic dissection of the lure of fascism by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, Blue Heart (a superb revival of Caryl Churchill’s amazing diptych) and Sheppey (Somerset Maugham’s last humanist play). So if you’re not a local it really is worth the schlep out to Richmond.  Look out for the next season – unlike some (here’s looking at you Royal Court) the blurbs give you a pretty good idea of what is on offer.