Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 8th October 2017

When I was a young’un, come to make my fortune in the Big Smoke, I was lucky enough to secure free or cut price tickets to productions at the Barbican and NT. But then, as now, I am afraid I was more “Dick” than “W(h)it”-tington, (how laboured was that), as I am pretty sure I passed on the opportunity to see the original version of this famous production of Macbeth at the NT because a) it was/is in Japanese and b) it was Shakespeare, which at that time I would only watch to impress others.

So it was a joy to see that this production, which has gone into the annals of theatrical history, was coming back to London, and that I could therefore atone for the sins of my younger self. The eponymous founder of the company, Yukio Ninagawa, unfortunately passed away last year, but his legacy is alive and kicking with the backing of producers HoriPro, Saitama Arts Foundation and the legendary Thelma Holt CBE.

So a packed house at the Barbican awaited a massive cast of 33, I think, actors with the proverbial bated breath (actually lively chatting but you know what I mean). Now I had expected a visual spectacle. I had expected dramatic, even melodramatic delivery. I had expected a massive soundscape. I had even expected a decent play (it’s Macbeth after all). But what I had not expected was such a surgical (no pun intended) delivery of the story. Nor had I expected such an adept translation, which was true to the key passages in the text and which highlighted the poetry of the repeated motifs and words (though there were a couple of inadvertently funny missteps). Chi, anyone? And I certainly had not expected to be sucked into the emotion of it all. In particular I reckon Keita Oishi’s Macduff was the best I have seen. Vengeance indeed.

Having said all of that it is how this Macbeth, re-imagined in a Samurai Japan, looks which remains the most extraordinary thing about it. The butsudan that frames the action. The ancient women who tearfully observe the action throughout. The cherry blossom, the traditional Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life. The giant red sun which turns cold blue when Macduff finally biffs Macbeth. The bronze warrior statues when Macduff and Malcolm meet in England. The Samurai knights hollering in unison. The Kabuki witches – well played lads. The eight kings. Banquo’s ghost – you know he is coming but even so – OMG. The swooshing sword play. The Ninja assassins despatching Banquo and then, you bastards (!), Lady Macduff and the kids.

Now I do admit that a tiny part of me, call it a couple of per cent, couldn’t shake off the idea that is was a bit over the top. The make-up is caked on. The delivery is full on shouty declamatory. The music, with the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem and Barber’s Adagio for Strings featuring heavily, doesn’t hold back – out damned minor keys, as it were. Masochika Ichimura as Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth are giants of Japanese stage and screen but are no spring chickens. Yet in the scene ahead of the banquet, as they try to pull themselves together, they looked so vulnerable, and a lump came to my throat. I guess the point is that Ninagawa-san knew that Will S, through all the Jacobean flattery and the lecture on the perils of “vaulting” political ambition, still retained a deal of sympathy for the power-mad couple. The absence of the child is so keenly felt by this ageing pair. Anyway being sniffy about the melodrama, as some proper reviewers were, just seems discourteous to me.

So overall, whilst I wouldn’t want to give up on the stripped back Macbeths played out in Stygian gloom and occasional spotlights, I really, really enjoyed this operatic spectacle. Turns out that feudal Japan and Scotland are not so far apart. Sound and fury signified quite a lot as it happened.

I look forward to seeing another production from this marvellous company. I am an arse for not having seen any of their previous work.

London theatre update

Focussing on theatre and couldn’t be arsed to put in a photo.

Most of this below post still applies but a few new shiny things have caught my beady eye.

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

At the Barbican booking opening for a Japanese version of Macbeth which is apparently a “once in a lifetime” experience. So they have hooked me in easily. And all the Shakespeare Roman plays are coming from Stratford to the Barbican with booking very soon.

Talking of Roman plays the new Bridge Theatre with the marvellous Nicholas Hytner at the tiller will announce its inaugural season on 19th April but has already teased with a Julius Caesar with Ben Wishaw as Brutus. Busy Ben will also be in Against at the Almeida. What with the National Theatre productions of The Madness of King George III, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Alchemist, England People Very Nice, One Man Two Guvnors, Timon of Athens and Othello through the years Mr Hytner has been the brains behind some of the very best theatre I have ever seen.

The West End transfer of the Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott is booking already I think – I got a bit confused. Mandatory viewing if you haven’t already seen it. Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

And the Park Theatre new season has been announced and looks full of goodies to me. I don’t know how they do it but the ideas, writers and cast they attract it tip top. Rabbits, Loot, What Shadows and The Retreat all catch my eye for varying reasons. Take a gander at the website.

Park Theatre What’s On

Right best of what’s on now that I have seen is (in no particular order)

  • The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre – make sure you are in a Tennessee Williams mindset though (whatever that is) but the production and performances are top notch. mind you the staging requires a close up view I think.
  • The Kid Stays in the Picture at the Royal Court – loved it – The Kid Stays in the Picture at the Royal Court Theatre review *****
  • Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre – have to review this but worth a visit – it is a bit skeletal and needs a bit of meat to flesh it out (sorry this is getting overly carnivorous) but solid performances, sone good ideas and a cracking Es Devlin set.

Yet to see Twelfth Night and Consent at the NT but critics like ’em, same for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Goat and Don Juan in Soho in the West End but sounds like you could easily go a whim to any of these.

Cheers

Roman Tragedies at the Barbican review *****

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Roman Tragedies

Barbican Theatre, 19th March 2017

Right that fella in the pic above is Hans Kesting. And for my money he is the best stage actor in the world (though to be fair the fact that I have only seen a small sub-set  of the total universe of stage actors may lead you to suspect some exaggeration here). Yet I don’t understand a word he says (well maybe one or two). And I have only seen him twice. But I stick by this.

His Richard III in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War last year was mesmerising. His powerful frame crammed into a tiny suit with a birthmark on his face (all that was required to conjure up disability and difference), and using a mirror to expose his soul (did I really just write that) and lay bare his self-hate, he nailed it in my book.

And if anything in this production his Mark Antony was even more powerful. His funeral oration in response to Brutus’s justification was riveting as he prowled around the stage sometimes leaving the microphone and tearing at his tie – frankly I would have done whatever he asked if he were a leader of men in the real world even as I knew he was lying through his teeth. And he wasn’t alone. Eelco Smits as Brutus constantly probing his own conscience, Bart Siegers breaking down outside the auditorium as Enobarbus, Chris Nietvelt’s skin crawlingly needy Cleopatra, Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Coriolanus throwing the ultimate power tantrum. There were many others. The whole ensemble is just extraordinary having worked together under wunderkind director van Hove for many years. The last hour or so of A and C was perfect theatre – they must all know exactly what they are doing but it just felt so utterly and aggressively spontaneous.

The thing is by translating Shakespeare into Dutch and then back into English through the subtitles you can follow all the action whilst still retaining most of the poetry. By hacking all the war scenes out and focussing solely on the rulers and not on the ruled that they generally disdain, the real motives behind the exercise of political power are exposed. Ego, prejudice, love. ignorance, jealously are all laid bare with cool heads and analysis in short supply. By setting the action in a conference centre cum news room (so everything is “on”and visible), and in modern dress, the timeless nature of the exercise of power is exposed. And by allowing the audience to shift around at will, all this can be seen through multiple viewpoints (which you choose) and with us, the observers, becoming the observed/the ruled. The parallels with the populism in the world today effortlessly emerge (as no doubt they did in Shakespeare’s day – the experts can tell you more).

And it is anything but a marathon. Watching episode after episode of the Wire or Breaking Bad or that Game of Thrones cartoon is a bloody marathon yet millions of people do it. This is a breeze by comparison and you can even eat you sarnies and sit on a sofa.

Anyway hopefully you get the picture and can see why the punters and luvvies rave about this.

Of course it isn’t much good telling you this now that this is over but Toneelgroep Amsterdam stays at the Barbican for Obsession with Jude Law as the lead Gino in an adaption of the Visconti film and then the ensemble will bring their take on a couple of Bergman films. And they will I am sure be back again next year and they have the collaborations with Simon Stone and Katie Mitchell on their home turf. Maybe not the same as these genius Shakespeare mash-ups but whatever comes will be mandatory viewing anyway. Just look on their website at what they haven’t brought to London yet from the back catalogue and salivate.

Korn maar op!

Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in)

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Some recommendations – but read the caveats below

So in this post I have tried to draw out some highlights (for me) of the forthcoming classical music seasons at the major London venues.

Remember this blog is for the curious – all you experts out there are permitted to snigger at the below – but we all have to start somewhere. If you are a youngster there are generally lots of ways I gather to blag cheaper tickets. For most venues a bit of forward planning generally helps but is not an essential to get to see what you want to see. Stuff does sell out but rarely immediately (at least the stuff I want to see) in contrast to the best of London’s (non-West End) theatre.

If you are not a massive cognoscenti, like to take a punt on things you don’t know too well, not possessed of perfect hearing or a cheapskate, or, like me, all of the above, then opting for the cheap seats at most of these views turns up what I consider to be an extraordinary bargain. For a tenner or so, and certainly less than a pony (Cockney not equine) you can see and hear two hours of, for example, a world class orchestra, with a world class conductor performing a world class piece of art. Same price as the cinema which is just a shed with a digital print rolling around endlessly. Oh and with all your hard earned cash going to the performers, shareholders and assorted hangers-on, so they can dick about in frocks at the Oscars and expand their already monstrous egos. In the classical music world the performers take way less, the state chips in a bit, there are some rich philanthropists generally subsidising a bit of your visit and there are generally no grasping shareholder types. Who’d have thought … poncey, classical music as a redistributive challenge to the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.

Right now to the musical caveats. The key thing to bear in mind is that  I cannot abide any of that Romantic, self-indulgent overwrought slush. For me Western classical music stopped around 1830 after your man Beethoven died and then started again in the C20 when Stravinsky pumped up the rhythm. I need to hear a pulse or beat and not get drowned in too much lyricism, melody and expression.

This probably reflects my starting point. When I was a nipper and started listening to music in the mid 1970s our starting point was heavy and progressive rock. Think Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, Supertramp, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple. There might be some enterprising twists and turns, West Coast rock, Marley, Krautrock, Kraftwerk for example but these were rare. And there was a lot that we considered off limits including to my eternal shame, the likes of Bowie, all soul and disco music, the Velvet Underground and similar ilk. Obviously I eventually saw the error of my ways and have been on a self imposed course of cultural re-education for many years to correct these flaws notably in the case of Bowie. However the heavy/progressive rock DNA cannot be eradicated.

BUT fortunately Punk came to the rescue. Now it took a bit of time to wend its way down to Devon and I can’t deny that shoulder length hair and velvet flares was the look I favoured to attract the ladies until the very end of the 1970s but our music tastes changed substantially for the better. So the golden period for shaping my musical tastes was 1978 to 1985. That is not to say the old order was entirely overthrown (Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1979, Pink Floyd The Wall in 1980 were the most obvious aberrations) but a near religious devotion to the NME and especially John Peel for the first few years of that golden age saw a firm shift to the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and the like. I confess that the appreciation of the Fall, Wire and the Wedding Present, now firm favourites, was rather more retrospective and the Smiths too took a bit of time. Anyway hopefully you get the picture. After that life caught up and my appreciation of pop/rock/indie was a more haphazard/measured affair until the last few years. (PS I do realise I just how cliched my musical taste is but unfortunately it probably won’t stop me expanding further on some of these likes in a misty eyed way in future blogs)

The same trajectory applied to my appreciation of classical music. The middle/late 1980s saw the first forays following a bunch of free concerts (oh to be young) which was fairly eclectic but ended up largely centred on Britten, Shostakovich and Beethoven and very little else. And then the ramp up in the past few years. This has meant an expansion into minimalist music (previously it was pretty much Arvo Part and not much else), the beginnings of an understanding of Stravinsky, a reversal from Beethoven into Haydn (but not Mozart), a major Baroque expansion (largely Vivaldi and now other Italians with a bit of Bach) and finally an understanding of the joys of Early Music. I reckon that is enough to keep me going until my time is up.

So those are the parameters around which the recommendations below are made. No doubt some musicologist can make sense of all of this but I will stick with “I know what I like”.

Oh and the final caveat – it’s only going to work if you are based in London. Sorry.

Anyway “hear” you go (ha ha).

  • Barbican Hall – 1st May 2017 7.30pm – Music in 12 Parts by Philip Glass – yep his hallmark piece over the thick end of 4 hours played by a crew of superb musicians – not the easiest way into vintage Glass but maybe the best – looks like some tckets still up for grabs but this will sell out I reckon
  • Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017 7.30pm – a Gerald Barry piece, Chevaux de Frise which I don’t know but sound like a blast, and Beethoven Symphony no 3 – Britten Sinfonia – conductor Thomas Ades – Beethoven 3 is the big shift out of the Classical period – Thomas Ades loves Beethoven and is one of our greatest current composers – as does/is Gerald Barry – they both write contemporary operas people actually want to see  – and the Britten Sinfonia are the top bananas at interpreting contemporary music so sound different to the big orchestras – still loads of tickets here
  • Cadogan Hall – 16th June 2017 7.30pmDebussy’s Prelude, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich 5th Symphony – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – two of my favourites here and the Debussy is bearable – but a nice, straightforward programme with a bit of showy stuff – again lots of tickets going here given the plain vanilla nature of the evening
  • Barbican Hall – 23rd June 2017 7.30pmMonteverdi’s Vespers – Academy of Ancient Music – vocal masterpiece of early Baroque – just extraordinary even now – written as a way to drum up business by Monteverdi – I defy you not to lik ethis
  • Wigmore Hall – 29th June 2017 7.30pm – Alte Musik Academie Berlin – Isabelle Faust on the violin – Bach suites and concertos – generally we Brits (sorry for not being sufficiently European) are the period music experts but this bunch are one of the best in the world
  • Barbican Hall – 21st September 7pm and 24th September  2017 6pm so not too late on a Sunday evening – Stravinsky Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – London Symphony Orchestra – conducted by Simon Rattle – so here you get all 3 of the classic Stravinsky ballet scores in one evening, conducted by Rattle who is coming home to lead the LSO – and I like his Stravinsky interpretations – this is set to be extraordinary – this will sell out so get your skates on as this is a real highlight
  • Kings Place – 16th December 7.30pm – Tenebrae and Oliver Coates cello – a whole bunch of different composer works, songs, hymns and carols for voices and cello – lovely Christmassy stuff
  • Barbican Hall – 29th March 2018 7.30pm – Evgeny Kissin – Chopin Mazurkas and Etudes selection and Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata – now I normally avoid the showy pianists like the plague and Kissin definitely fits the bill – but if you want to see a piano recital just like you imagine it to be – think extravagant diva Russian type with bushy hair banging the keys like there is no tomorrow and then hunched gently with the merest of taps on the keys – then he is your man
  • Barbican Hall – 4th May 2018 7.30pm – Los Angeles Philharmonic and London Symphony Chorus– Beethoven Symphony no 9 Choral and Bernstein Chichester Psalms – conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (another curly, long haired fellow) – so this is the pick I think of the visiting orchestras in the 17/18 London season – with the wunderkind Venezuelan Dudamel conducting – he made his name with the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Orchestra which all the luvvies adore – anyway who knows how this will sound but it is the Choral Symphony and the Bernstein piece is a belter as well – mind you they are charging 30 quid even up in the back of the circle
  • Queen Elizabeth Hall – 11th May 2018 7.30pm – mostly Ligeti chamber music – right this is proper contemporary stuff – no tunes here – but Ligeti was a master – so give it a whirl – YouTube the Trio for Horn. Violin and Piano to see what you think
  • Barbican Hall – 31st May 2018 7.30pm– Academy of Ancient Music – soloist Nicola Benedetti – Telemann and Vivaldi concertos – nice easy way into the masters of Baroque strings with a period instrument band and a soloist who is not however too bound to the period performance tropes

There you have it.