Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.

 

Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****

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Edward II

Greenwich Theatre, 24th January 2018

Right then, This is what theatre is all about. Take a cast-iron classic history play from Jacobean bad-boy Kit Marlowe, hack out thematic repetition, wordiness and some characters, pare back set, costumes, sound and lighting, and let a young, hungry cast do its thing. This is not the first time that Edward II has been given this treatment, (there are echoes of Joe Hill-Gibbons divisive NT production a few years ago), and it won’t be the last given the plays themes. Marlowe often proves just too juicy for directors who feel compelled to make their artistic mark. The risible Faustus from Jamie Lloyd a couple of years ago shows just a mess some have made of this opportunity. We walked out at the interval leaving it to those whooping at Kit Harington’s bum and munching on McDonalds (I kid you not).

On the other hand if you let the “actors” get too actorly, and treat every word of Marlowe’s text with solemnity, then it can turn into an impenetrable slog. It shouldn’t. This is a salacious shocker but it also draws out its themes, of homophobia for sure, but also, and more importantly, class division and religious hypocrisy, with brutal clarity. Ricky Dukes as adaptor and director, and his team at Lazarus Theatre, have performed a minor miracle in getting this down to 90 minutes whilst still highlighting these themes, drawing out the characters and their motives and preserving the flavour of Marlowe’s delicious verse. And it is properly thrilling as well. The Spensers and Sir John of Hainault, together with various toffs and hangers-on, are dispensed with. The scenes pre and post the unpleasantness with the poker are all collapsed into one tableaux, replete with scary clown masks, a lot of fake blood, polythene sheets, (practical as well as visually impressive), and, given the Greenwich Theatre air-con is pretty fierce, I should imagine a cold, naked Eddy II. The play ends with tween Eddy III admonishing all over the phone. It is a stunning last 20 minutes.

This cut means that the focus is on Eddy II and Gaveston’s relationship and the early manoeuvrings of the nobles, here just Kent, Mortimers pere et fils, Warwick, Lancaster and Canterbury, for and against them. It also gives more focus on Queen Isabella’s stratagems. The staging from designer Socha Corcoran is utilitarian. Cristiano Casimiro costume design sees the men in rolled up shirts and suit trousers looking like they have have been standing outside a City (or Wharf) bar for a few hours on a summer’s evening. (And what with the shouting and arguing they also sound like they might have downed a few). Edward II gets a sparkling, heavyweight crown and a robe, Queen Isabella a simple blue gown. Costumes and props remain on stage as do the entire cast with Eddy II and Gaveston standing on chairs when not involved as the nobles plot against them. Ben Jacobs’s lighting is harsh and Neil McKeown’s sound is aggressive and dramatic. Ricky Dukes and the team have learnt from the best that contemporary theatre direction can offer, (hello Katie Mitchell), but have avoided going over the top, so that the modern dress and stark set serve the play, not overwhelm it.

Best of all the young cast, even when down to the undies at the end, deliver Marlowe’s concrete verse crisply and clearly and ensure that the questions posed by Marlowe, albeit with deliberate ambiguity, are to the fore. Edward II was, by reputation a vain, immature man-child who presided over a period of weak government and fiscal chaos. Just as well son Eddy III came to the rescue and make England great (again?). Timothy Blore captures Edward Ii’s apparent callow sense of entitlement and his supposed infatuation with Oseloka Obi’s more knowing Galveston. The pair show real tenderness in the “love” scenes but Mr Obi makes sure we are uncertain as to Gaveston’s true motives and his manipulative nature. Jamie O’Neill delivers an excellent Mortimer as he orchestrates the others into first banishing Galveston, and later conspiring to see Edward murdered. Getting rid of, replacing or curtailing the powers of flawed kings, (here the Ordinances of 1311), has, after all, been an occupational requirement for the nobility/elite of this country across the centuries. Kings and queens after all are simply symbols to support the fiction of nationhood and underpin the theft of property. But too often they thought they could do what the liked, because, in essence they could.

Alex Zur as the protective Kent, David Clayton as the vengeful Canterbury, Stephen Smith as the Elder Mortimer, Stephen Emery as Lancaster and John Slade as Warwick are, to a man, superb. Topping them however is Alicia Charles as Isabella whose wounded pride cannot get in the way of her own, and eventually her son’s, destiny.

As I understand it homosexuality was tolerated in medieval and early modern society. The act of sodomy was theoretically punishable however, up to, and including, death. This reflects the influence of the church, always obsessed with the mechanics of sex. Such was the context in which Marlowe, regularly accused of blasphemy, (amongst other things), penned the play. He examined homosexual relationships in other plays and poems, notably in the opening of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and in his descriptions of Leander.

Whatever Marlowe’s own sexuality, and whether or not he was avowedly atheist, he presents his themes with provocative equivocation (to use the Jacobean buzzword). Was he tempting his contemporary audience to celebrate, condone or be moved by the central relationship? How critical is he of the social order which sees Gaveston’s real crime as his anonymous upbringing, a “minion”? How playful is Ed and Gaveston’s mocking of Canterbury, (who stands in for the Bishop of Coventry in this condensed production)? How true are Ed II’s emotions, after all he accedes to Gaveston’s banishment and execution? Is Gaveston driven by passion or the pursuit of power and wealth? What is the true relationship between Isabella and Mortimer and how does this influence their actions? Their lust for power doesn’t end well remember. War, pestilence, famine, the Scots and the French sticking their noses in, seizure of lands and possessions, trials, executions. All this followed from this struggle between king and his toffs. On the other hand some good came out of all this as it hastened in the beginning of Parliament as we know it.

There is so, so much more to Marlowe’s play than a some gay clinches, a poker and an arse and Lazarus’s production is an excellent contemporary attempt to capture this richness. This is a play that looks back to the defining philosophies of its setting, but also goaded and asked questions of its contemporary Elizabethan audience, and, because Marlowe’s writing is so wise and we are essentially the same then as now, (bar the technology), it can make us think today.

Short, sharp, brutish it is. Very short given the cut and paste Mr Dukes has taken to the text and action. But sweet too. I can see that other reviews of this productions are mixed to say the least. There are a fair few that seem not to know quite what had hit them. Not saying I did but I was persuaded and will be back to see Lazarus’s take on Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Thanks very much Lazarus.

Tamburlaine at the Arcola Theatre review ***

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Tamburlaine

Arcola Theatre, 6th April 2017

In many ways this was a brave piece of theatre. Tamburlaine, in two parts, was Christopher Marlowe’s first performed solo play, written in his early 20s, and which changed the course of English drama and massively influenced all the big boys of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama including our Will. Blank verse with lots of tasty, hyperbolic flourish, big themes, heaps of action, proper heroes and villains. No wonder the punters loved him.

And obviously he, Marlowe,  was proper rock n roll – drink and baccy, gluttony, fighting, sexy times across the spectrum, heresy/atheism, conning, spying. Lust for life indeed. And this play is about the life and works of Mongol leader Timur (recast as Scythian), which mostly consisted of trying to conquer the entire known world, and who was also, I suspect, pretty rock n roll as well, and not a man plagued by self-doubt.

So no half measures here. Yellow Earth Theatre is a British East Asian company which has risen to the challenge in conjunction with young director Ng Choon Ping, who has adapted the plays to strip them back to a manageable couple of hours. In the Arcola’s smaller space with just a light wall, a few well chosen props and the taiko percussion of Joji Hirota, they do an admirable job of bringing the play to life. Given the streamlining of the text, the doubling/tripling/quadrupling of some of some characters and the abrupt shifts in location there are times when the action teeters towards a kind of hyped up, declamatory travelogue (Persia, Scythia, Egypt, Turkey, Africa, even Blighty gets a mention), but for the most part the cast does a great job in telling the story and particularly delivering the verse.

The production does capture the interplay between the personal and the geo-political and the tragedy of ambition. It also smartly draws out the innate conflict between differing world-views, Christian, Muslim and Judaism, and how these world-views serve the interests of power. This is not a play that goes easy on religion, and reminds us to beware not to underestimate a man on a mission, in this case being the “scourge of god” – the contemporary parallels are obvious. And it explores the inevitable disappointment of succession in dynastic family (always a potboiler though the solution to a workshy son here might strike some as rather drastic). Hard to single out from a uniformly strong cast but Lourdes Faberes as the eponymous, fearsome tyrant, and Leo Wan in multiple roles, caught my eye.

So all in all a fine effort which might have been better served by more resource. Anyway, Yellow Earth are now firmly on my radar. This is off on a tour to Oxford, Colchester and Birmingham in the next couple of weeks so definitely worth a look.

As an aside when I was a sad, friendless, little tween I had an unhealthy obsession with the rise of the Mongol Empire. It you are/were similar I highly recommend you seek out the film Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan, a co-production led by a Russia directing team which explores the early life of its subject. Very satisfying.