The Crucible at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Crucible

Richmond Theatre, 15th April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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The Exterminating Angel

Royal Opera House, 24th April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.