My favourite lockdown theatre so far and to look forward to

If you are, like me, a well-to-do theatre nut, missing the real thing, trying, unlike me, to fit in the panicking, worrying, exercising, zooming, reading, binge watching, baking, eating, on-line shopping, goal-satisfying, caring, and maybe working, then you have probably already been overwhelmed by the streaming opportunities already served up in the last few weeks. This plethora is easy enough to track via the MSM and WWW but less easy to watch with certainty of satisfaction what with all these other calls on your time.

Which is where the Tourist comes in. A professional loafer, all he has had to do is swap a seat in the many London, and elsewhere, theatres for his own armchair, saving tine, and a few quid on transport, which can usefully be donated to those very theatres whose need is greatest. Of course, however well filmed, these broadcasts are no substitute for the real thing, as I am sure you will have realised. Theatre is a collective enterprise, a shared experience, which comes alive with performance.

Even so there have been, and there are set to be, some absolutely belting productions coming to a screen right next to you. (OK some some have come and gone but all the more reasons not to miss what is in store). Here are some of my favourites, (just theatre though I have been gingerly dipping into the bucketload of opera that is also available). So dump those Netflix box sets and get cultured. Oh. and don’t be shy about turning on the subtitles. Not just for the foreign stuff. This is your chance to watch Shakespeare with all the text and nail the plots so that next time you can nod or chuckle knowingly at points of verse detail and savour the Bard’s, and the creative team’s, extraordinary insight into the human condition. Thus becoming a true luvvie.

(N.B. No order implied here. Just chronological and reflecting the fact that I can’t seem to format the list in WordPress. Those who have had the misfortune to work with the Tourist will be painfully aware of his technological shortcomings, most tellingly when they are stood at his shoulder, eyes rolling, as he adopts the most inefficient strategy possible for manipulating information on screen).

Best watches so far

  1. Fragments. Beckett by Brook. From Theatre Bouffes des Nord. Rough for Theatre I/Rockaby/Act Without Words II/Neither/Come and Go. Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s collection of Beckett miniatures, from a cast of specialists, Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni. If you thought Beckett was a load of miserable, impenetrable twaddle, think again. This is hilarious and never outstays its welcome. Well maybe not true for Rough for Theatre I. Still available on their Vimeo channel.
  2. It’s True. It’s True, It’s True by Breach Theatre. So I finally had tickets for this at the Barbican with the intention of taking BD along. So very pleased to see the production popped up on line when the tour had to be cancelled. Had heard good things about it and I can confirm that it delivers on its promise. The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery has been postponed though I gather one fine day us Brits will still get our chance to survey the work of this most talented Caravaggisti/feminist icon. Her story and her influence are undeniable though the power and beauty of the paintings takes your breath away even before you get into the interpretation. Bar the Capodimonte in Naples you have to get about a bit to see many of her 60 0dd attributed works though so this UK first is set to be unmissable. Anyway you culture vultures will already know all about her. In ITx3 Breach Theatre, Billy Barrett, Ellice Stevens, Ellie Claughton and Dorothy Allen-Pickard, here joined by cast members Kathryn Bond, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb, convert the verbatim Latin and Italian texts of AG’s 1612 rape trial into modern vernacular, and turn it into hard-hitting drama, complete with lessons on key paintings. It’s brilliant. It was on I Player for a bit but is now available elsewhere: try the New Diorama site. And slip the company a few quid so that they can keep making theatre of this quality.
  3. The Crucible. Old Vic Theatre. I missed Yael Farber’s lauded production from the Old Vic in 2014 with a cast led by Richard Armitage and Anna Madeley. Ms Farber’s moody atmospherics and precise point-making don’t always work. Here they do though. faultlessly. OK so it is one of my favourite ever plays but this is the best thing I have seen in recent weeks. 8 quid to rent from Digital Theatre but worth every penny.
  4. An Enemy of the People. Schaubuhne Berlin. And here is the second best watch. SB has been extremely generous with its offering even for those of us no German speakers. What with Beware of Pity, Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s take on Orlando which couldn’t make it to the Barbican, Thomas Ostermeier’s full on Hamlet with Lars Eidimger doing his best bonkers gurning and, most recently, TO’s Hedda Gabler, with Katharina Schuttler brilliant as a bored child-woman Hedda. Best of the lot though was the wunderkind director’s take on another Ibsen classic, An Enemy of the People. Dialogue, even in translation, utterly contemporary without missing a beat from HI’s argument. Wild Duck might just edge it for best Ibsen ever in my book but, with AEOTP, as a satire on the complexity of morality, despite, or perhaps even because of, the alarming twist in Stockman’s public positioning, few writers have come close before or since. Done properly all Ibsen should knot up stomach and mind and Ostermeier and company cut straight to the chase here. Just wish I could understand the debate between audience and cast, in character, when the fourth wall is cracked for the Act IV town meeting scene. The production was banned in China when it toured in 2018. Nuff said. Unfortunately all these SB productions are one night only affairs but I urge you to keep your eye on the programme.
  5. Frankenstein. National Theatre. Missed this in 2011 so ecstatic when NT added it to their list. You might disagree with the balance of the themes from Mary Shelley’s original which Nick Dear’s adaptation focussed on, and with the somewhat episodic structure, but hey you have to agree that Danny Boyle can put on a show. And the lads Cumberbatch and, only marginally less so, Lee Miller, know their way round a stage. The rest of the NT At Home season, The Twelfth Night, with that performance from Tasmin Greig, Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre and One Man, Two Guvnors, (though it did lose a bit from live stage to screen I admit), all delighted, and I am about to catch up with Antony and Cleopatra, but they count for less as I had seem them all in the flesh as it were.

There have been a few other highlights. Caryl Churchill’s menacing Far Away from the Donmar which we missed live, Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott with Sophie Melville available on Digital Theatre, Simon Godwin’s RSC production of Two Gentleman of Verona, (SG may just be the best Shakespearean director right now), available on that Marquee TV, Imitating the Dog’s labour of love with their Night of the Living Dead REMIX, (available on a pay what you like basis), though the filming of the filming of the acting of a film dilutes its impact a little, and the RSC Richard II with David Tennant, also on Marquee TV. Oh and last night’s revisit of Christopher Luscombe’s RSC Much Ado About Nothing, (or Love’s Labours Won as he would have it), on BBC I Player. All did the business.

On the watch-list

What next? A few recommendations first based on prior watches, so the Tourist can confirm their quality.

  1. The Phyllida Lloyd/Harriet Walter all female Donmar Shakespeare trilogy (The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar) from the Donmar. No need to enact the kettling pre-performance that was feature of the Kings Cross version. Digital Theatre or Marquee TV take your pick.
  2. Melly Still’s RSC Cymbeline also on both DT and MTV. Ms Still, with her heart on sleeve, gender switching, state of the nation, physical theatre remake manages to, just about, make something out of one of big Will’s more puzzling creations.
  3. The Encounter from Complicite. The genius who is Simon McBurney takes you on a full on sensory journey into the heart of darkness. This was, literally, made for headphones so should convert well in the at-home experience. On the Complicite website from 15th May for a week.
  4. A Doll’s House from the Lyric Hammersmith. For one night only on the 20th May on the Lyric’s YouTube channel. Tanika Gupta’s resetting of Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic to 1879 Calcutta lends depth and resonance.
  5. Barber Shop Chronicles from the NT. All of the next 4 NT offerings look unmissable to me. If you haven’t seen Inua Ellam’s vibrant BSC you are in for a treat. On the NT YT channel from 14th May.
  6. This House from the NT. If you liked James Graham’s Quiz on ITV recently then don’t miss what he does best. Recent(ish) political history as comedy. TH tracks the minority Labour government in the 1970s showing how our political class is doomed to repeat itself. From 28th May.

And here are the pick of the productions that are new to me and about which I am very excited.

  1. A Streetcar Named Desire from the Young Vic. From 21st May for a week through the NT At Home initiative this is Benedict Andrew’s sprawling interpretation of Tennessee Williams’s magnum opus from 2014 which, inexplicably, I was too late to get a ticket for and, idiotically, dismissed watching in the cinema.
  2. Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Ditto the above. Missed out because of work and other stuff and have been desperate to see this ever since. Coriolanus is just one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare’s and Josie Rourke’s economical take has sone fella called Tom Hiddleston in the title role and a bonkers-ly luxuriant cast around him. From 4th June vis the NT again. I cannot wait.
  3. Ghosts from the Almeida. Available on Digital Theatre. This is the Richard Eyre production with the peerless Lesley Manville, alongside Jack Lowden and Will Keen, which belts through Ibsen’s grimmest family tale in 90 minutes. That’s my happy place evening viewing sorted.

Enjoy. And donate. So that the theatre will still be there when we get out of this pickle.

The Magic Flute at the ENO review *****

The Magic Flute

English National Opera, 28th March 2019

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.

Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.

But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.

Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.

Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.

Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura, rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.

Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.

Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.

Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.

The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.

It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.

Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.

However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.

I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.

And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.

Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.

The Kid Stays in the Picture at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

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The Kid Stays in the Picture

Royal Court Theatre, 30th March 2017

So another of life’s minor annoyances caused by devoting too much time to work and not enough time to expanding the cultural horizons. I confess I have not read Robert Evans’s eponymous autobiography on which this play is based and therefore knew nothing about him. This clearly now looks like a massive oversight and will be put right tout suite. It is a fascinating story and it is pretty much immediately clear from the off why the genius Simon McBurney and Complicite have worked so hard to bring this story to the stage (with help from some big names in cinema).

Now all you theatre lovers will know full well how much of an asset Mr McBurney OBE is to the human race. For us lesser mortals you have likely seen him in a few films (Allied, Mission Impossible, The Theory of Everything, The Last King of Scotland which I recently watched), and a bit on the telly (Vicar of Dibley and Rev for example). Now I assume these were to pay the bills and fund the adventures with Complicite which he co-founded. Most recently he created Beware of Pity in conjunction with Schaubuhne Berlin at the Barbican (no review from me as it went in the blink of an eye but an astonishing five star tour de force) and The Encounter which I also saw at the Barbican last year and which was again a staggeringly clever piece of theatre.

Now this piece uses all the tricks for which he is famous. Video on stage, recorded video, close ups of other media, music and sound collages, lighting effects including brilliant use of silhouetting, actors telling the story through microphones rather than drama per se, multiple parts. It is an astonishing technical feat to have pieced all this together – even a dummy like me can see that. Given however that this is in essence therefore just telling the first person story, in a very cinematic way, of what is on the page in the autobiography, I can see why some of the professional reviewers got a bit sniffy about whether this is proper theatre. Me I couldn’t give two hoots about the genre bending when the story is this captivating and when it is delivered at this pace. At the risk of sounding like a patronising old git (actually no risk at all for when the cap fits) I would highly recommend this to those who are not natural theatre goers but who do love their cinema.

This is not simply because of the content (Robert Evans was largely responsible for the rise of Paramount Studios in the 1960s and !970s and the driving force behind the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown) but also the style. There is a debt of gratitude to the likes of Citizen Kane and films from the early days of cinema, as well as to noir with the “voiceovers”, but Complicite also manage to capture this era of great “New Wave” cinema making when big characters made big films with big issues at their heart (not the silly CGI fantasies too often spat out by modern Hollywood). There is no real development of the characters so I think I now know what Robert Evans and other caught up in his story got up to (a rise and fall morality tale), though not really why, but frankly it didn’t matter to me. I just got mesmerised by the story.

So there you have it. Please go and take a look. It isn’t the typical Royal Court fare where the writer is everything (and that is why it is a precious institution) but it is still a rollickingly good evening and they even let you out for a comfort break halfway through.

P.S. This did bring to my mind two other recommendations. Firstly if you have never read Suspects by the film journalist David Thomson, please do. He takes renowned characters from cinema’s past and weaves imagined back-stories for them. Marvellous holiday reading. And secondly if you are a youngster and have never sat down and watched the Godfather trilogy please put this right. I accept that by Part 3 Al Pacino is having to make herculean efforts to prop up a creaky plot but Parts 1 and 2 are about as good as film gets. Ask your Dad if you don’t believe me. If he doesn’t agree get a new Dad.